Pirate & Privateer Clothing - Breeches / Slops

One of the more distinct garments of sailor's dress has become commonly known as "slops". "Slops" are a loose fitting lower garment that can reach anywhere from above the knee to just below the calf.   A common misconception is that "slops" always refer to a specific type of wide open trouser reaching to just below the knee which are often referred to in historical documents as "wide kneed breeches".

While often a matter of debate, it appears that these "short slops" or "sailor shorts" did not commonly appear until the mid 17th century, and were not commonplace until the early 18th century, a variant of which is the "petticoat breech" or "skilt", a voluminously wide pleated loose "skirt" that is generally made from canvas or old sail cloth and originally meant to keep tar off of a man’s good clothing, or in otherwise to protect it from damage. They were usually worn over breeches but were sometimes worn with nothing underneath. 

Eventually, slops by the end of the 18th century became longer, and were known by the 19th Century as trousers, reaching just a few inches above the ankle although typically loose fitting. In some instances they flared outwards towards the bottom of the cuff. This became popularized in the early 19th century, when a standardized uniform did not yet exist in the U.S Navy, and some sailors adopted a style of wide trousers ending in bell-shaped cuffs.

In 1813, one of the first recorded descriptions of sailors' uniforms, written by Commodore Stephen Decatur, noted that the men on the frigates United States and Macedonia were wearing "glazed canvas hats with stiff brims, decked with streamers of ribbon, blue jackets buttoned loosely over waistcoats, and blue trousers with bell bottoms." 

The British Royal Navy had often been a leader in nautical fashion, but bell-bottoms did not become part of the standard uniform until the mid-19th century. These "bell-bottoms" were often just very wide-legged trousers, rather than shaped trousers that flared below the knee. 

In addition to slops and trousers, sailors and seafairing men also wore another lower garment known as "knee-breeches".

The origins of the "sailor" breeches first appears in the late 16th century and is widely known as "Venetian Breeches" which were also popular amongst the landsmen at the time. This is a loose fitting garment that is gartered at the knees and is generally very flowing and loose in the seat and hips, a variant of which is depicted in Elizabethan England and is known as the Gally-hosen or Gallagskin which is quite voluminous. 

A pamplet written by Philip Stubbes, entitled "The Anatomie of Abuses" and printed in Elizabethan England in 1583 describes the variety and style of breeches, also known as "hosen", worn during the late 16th and early 17th century:

"Then have they Hosen, which as they be of divers fashions, so are they of sundry names. Some be called french-hose, some gally-hose, and some Venitians. The french-hose are of two divers makings, for the common french-hose (as they listto call them) containeth length, breadth, and widnes sufficient, and is made very rounde. The other contayneth neither length, breadth nor widenes (beeing not past a a quarter of a yard wide) wherof some be paned, cut and drawne out with costly ornaments, with canions adjoined reaching down beneath their knees. The Gally-hosen are made very large and wide, reaching downe to their knees onely, with three or foure guardes a peece laid down along either hose. And the Venetian-hosen, they reach beneath the knee to the gartering place to the Leg, where they are tyed finely with silk points, or some such like, and laied on also with rewes of laces, or gardes as the other before. And yet notwithstanding all this is not sufficient, except they be made of silk, velvet, saten, damask, and other such precious things beside: yea, every one, Serving man and other inferiour to them, in every condition, wil not stick to flaunte it out in these kinde of hosen, withall other their apparel sutable therunto. In times past, Kings would not disdaine to weare a paire of hosen of a Noble, tenne Shillinges, or a Marke price, with all the rest of their apparel after the same rate; but now it is a small matter to bestowe twentie nobles, ten pound, twentiepound, fortie pound, yea, a hundred pound on one paire of Breeches."

English Sailor with Galligaskin

The Engish sailor during the late Elizabethan era is often depicted wearing breeches known as "Gallyhosen" or "Galligaskins". The design is reminiscient of a "pumpkin" and often is referred to as "Pumpkin Pants"

A sailor with Gallyhosen. 

Sixteenth Century
Another image of a "Master Seaman" from the sixteenth century.

Expensive and not easy to manufacture, the Gallyhosen were less commonly worn than "Venetian breeches" or simply "Venetians" which became very popular and widely adopted amongst the sailors and early navies.

Eventually, the "Venetians" became lest "pouffy" and were known as simply "knee breeches". By the latter 16th century, breeches began to replace hose as the general English term for men's lower outer garments, a usage that remained standard until knee-length breeches were replaced for everyday wear by long pantaloons or trousers. Knee-breeches came in several styles: very full throughout, very tight throughout, and very gathered and the top and narrow at the knee (like an inverted pear or turkey-leg). They might button or hook at the knee (either on the outside or inside of the knee), or might even be left open. They would be worn with over-the-knee length stockings, either tucked inside or pulled over the breeches, that were held up by garters. The garters might be quite ostentatious, or they might be simple bands with a buckle, with the stocking tops rolled down over to hide them.

Knee-breeches became widely distributed by the British Admiralty in what became known as "slop" contracts, a list of required garments that was first established in 1623.

While there was no official "Navy" uniform until 1748, by the 18th Century, breeches are specifically referred to in the 1706 Admiralty Slop Contracts, and are also the fashionable thing for the landsmen of the time.


"Venetian breeches" or simply "venetians" were common with sailors from the 16-18th centuries.
Originally they were "gartered" at the knees with ties or belting, and later  variations were buttoned and became common in Admiralty lists and eventually became referred to as "knee breeches".


1581 Venetian Breeches
An image depecting "Venetian Breeches" circa 1581.



A ship captain/bosun wearing "Venetian Breeches" or "knee-breeches"

Venetian garters
A closeup showing the "buckled" garter closing the breeches above th calf. in
Carrington Bowles drawing circa 1743.

Another example of "Venetian" or knee-breeches

dutch sailor

A dutch sailor by Johan Brotze circa 1790 with knee breeches.


Pirate Barttholomew Roberts with knee breeches circa 1721.


The two basic types of knee-breeches that became common by the 18th Century. 

By mid-18th century with the Dress Code of 1748 coming into effect, Royal Navy regulations stipulated that  "slops" were generally only worn by common ratings, for example: sailor, cabin boy, cook, or carpenter. The officers of the crew, from the rank of midshipman or "bachelor" wore "knee breeches".


In the 18th Century, the Royal Navy Dress Code required officers
to wear "knee-breeches" while the lower ratings such as the common sailor wore slops or petticoat breeches.


Another type of lower garment that was worn by sailors from at least the 16th century, was a long trouser-like garment with wide loose fitted legs and open at the bottom. In the 16th Century, this generally set the sailor apart from the landsman fashions at the time, and are generally referred to as "slops". In the Elizabethan era, these lower garments ran full length but by the late 17th and early 18th centuries sometimes ended above the knees in a version sometimes referred to as "wide kneed breaches" or "petticoat breeches". These "short slops" or petticoat breeches  have become iconic as the defacto standard for sailors dress. By the 18th Century, these wide legged slops were primarily worn by the "common" sailor rather than an officer or master seaman in England, but in other countries, such as Holland and Spain, long trousers were also worn by officers, and ship owners. Collectively these lower garments have become to known as "slops".



A spanish sailor circa 1529 with long loose fitted trousers.


An old Spanish sea captain circa 1529, note the full length trousers.


16th Century Dutch Sea Captain
"Nauicularius Hollandus" -  A 16th Century Dutch ship captain.


"Nauta Hollandus" - 16th Century Dutch sailor with thrum cap



Sailor on coin

A coin depicting a "true hearted sailor" circa 1794 with full length trousers.


A French engraving of Captain Gustavus Conyngham circa 1777 known as the "Dunkirk Pirate".
 Captain Conyngham was was an Irish-born American merchant sea captain, 
an officer in the Continental Navy and a privateer.  He has been referred to as  "the most successful of all Continental Navy captains"


A typical 18th century Seaman with a 
"Man of Wars Barge" wearing "petticoat breeches"


18th Century Sailor "I Wait For Orders"

A simple sailor by Thomas Rowlandson 1799.


A sketch of "wide kneed breeches", this style of  slop is also referred to as a "skilt" or petticoat breeches



A group of sailors with slops known sometimes as "wide kneed breeches"
or petticoat breeches circa 1755

A depiction of a cabin-boy wearing "slops", petticoat breeches or wide kneed breeches
by Thomas Rowland circa 1799.


An extant original of "short" slops or "wide kneed breeches"
in the London Museum circa 1600

Sailor with Slops
A sailor with "petticoat breeches"


The fly - from the 16th century to the end of the 17th century originally both slops and knee-breeches had a button up fly known as a "fly front" or "French fly". 

Fly Front Breeches

A pair of "fly front breeches" in the Victoria and Albert musuem
circa 1775

An example of the "fly front" popular until the end of the 18th century

French Fly
A late 18th Century "fly front"

In the mid 18th century, another type of fly developed called the fall front or drop front. It basically was a small flap that covered the front of the fly and by the turn of the 19th century, breeches worn by all men were sewn with a flap in front called a fall front. This flap was universally held in place by two or three buttons at the top. No belts were worn. Instead, breeches were held up by tight-fitting waists, which were adjusted by gusset ties in back of the waist. Seats were baggy to allow a man to rise comfortably from a sitting position. As waists rose to the belly button after 1810, suspenders were used to hold the garment up.

As far as the number of buttons holding the fall up or together, it varied over the coruse of history. In warm climates, drop falls had few buttons to allow more ventillation. The U.S. Navy has a long standing rumour that naval uniforms carry thirteen  buttons to represent the original thirteen colonies. However, there does not appear to be any historical correlation, before 1894, the trousers had only seven buttons and in the early 1800's they had 15 buttons. It wasn't until the broadfall front was enlarged that the 13 buttons were added to the uniform and only then to add symmetry of design. 

The narrow fall was basically a horizontally hinged flap which was held closed by three buttons on the waistband. Broad fall trousers had a fall which went from hip to hip, and did not come into use until the mid-nineteenth century.

A "fall front" knee-breech pattern circa 1763 from Boursiers, Wallet and Purse Maker.

"Narrow" fall front breeches

Extant Fall front breeches from the National Maritime Musuem in Greenwhich circa 1780-90

broadfall 1830
An extant pair of breeches from c. 1830 with the broad-fall

Broad-fall breeches circa 1830-40

Sailor with Fall Front Breeches circa 1798