Sloppes, Merchant and Navy Uniforms

The Sloppes Chest / Kit

The basic clothing items of the sloppes chest are:

We will examine the history each of these items on subsequent pages in much greater detail, but it may be roughly assumed that sailors' by the early 18th century wore petticoats and breeches, grey kersey jackets, woollen stockings and low-heeled shoes, and worsted, canvas, or leather caps. Worsted is thread or yarn made from wool - the word comes from the town of Worstead, England where the material is beleived to have originated. Canvas, leather, cotton, and coarse cloth were the principle materials used in sailors clothing, and tin buttons and coloured thread the most ornamental part of the costume.

A sailors' work clothes did not differ very greatly from those worn by peasants on land, except for the coat or jerkin in place of the doublet. Certainly there was nothing that could be described as any sort of general uniform which differentiated the seaman from the landsman, or even was common amongst all seaman, "every man dressed as seemed good in his eyes"

The "Slops" were available to the crew members, but because of the high cost, the men usualy had to be ordered by ship captains to draw the items from the purser's slop chests, with the costs being charged against their pay. The ship's pursuer usually brought the ship's slops from a contractor, commonly known as at that time as a "slopseller".

Adam Baldridge, a pirate turned merchant was a "slopseller" to the pirates at Madagascar, and received a shipment of clothes on 7 August 1693. The consignment included "44 paire of shoes and pump, six Dozen of worsted and threed stockens, three dozen of speckled shirts and Breaches, twelve hatts…"

Because of the high cost, most seamen made their own clothes on board, for few could afford the slop chest, and old canvass and some material was set aside for this.

According to Charnock's Marine Architecture it wasn't until about 1663, that "sailors began first to wear distinctive dress. A rule was that only red caps, yarn and Irish stockings, blue shirts, white shirts, cotton waistcoats, cotton drawers, neat leather flat-heeled shoes, blue neckcloths, canvas suits, and rugs were to be sold to them. Red breeches were worn."

In privateer and pirate ships, clothing and material seized from captured prisoners and cargo was important booty. A passenger, who sailed aboard a vessel seized by Edward Low, submitted an advertisement to the Boston Newsletter, published in the 18-25 June 1722 issue, that listed a variety of garments the pirates took:

…one scarlet suit of Clothes, one new gray Broad Cloth Coat, 1 Sword, with a fine red Velvet Belt…nine Bags of Coat and Jacket Buttons, a considerable quantity of sewing Silk and Mohair, Shoe Buckles…one Scarff of Red Persian Silk, fringed with black Silk…one Beaver Hat bound with Silver Lace… (British, v. 1, 287)

Plundered clothing was often auctioned at the mast by the quarter-master or purser, and pirates paid for these garments from their share of booty. One of the common rules, was those who had boarded the prize were guaranteed a "shift of clothes" from the captured vessel.

James Parrot, one of John Quelch’s men, received enough silk "as would make a pair of breeches" as part of his share of the prize.

Indeed, the pirate and privateer captains, had a simliar procedure of a "slops chest", where it was known sometimes as a "common chest" -- removing articles without paying for them could indeed create friction amongst the crew:

The Pirate Captains having taken these Cloaths without leave from the Quarter-master, it gave great offence to all the Crew; who alledg’d, "If they suffered such things, the Captains would for the future assume a Power, to take whatever they liked for themselves." So upon their returning on board next Morning, the Coats were taken from them, and put into the common Chest, to be sold at the Mast.

All seafaring men, be they pirate or not, also liked to dress up when they went ashore. By contrast, they acquired elaborate colourful clothes for going ashore, rich with silver and gold ornaments. After the exertions, dramas and terrors of the sea, they took their pay to the nearest seaport, spending freely on wine, women and song.They preferred to copy the gentry and would swagger in their finery to impress the women. In one account, Père Labat describes a group of pirates after capturing a ship laden with rich clothing, as a "comical sight as they strutted about the island in feathered hats, wigs, silk stockings, ribbons, and other garments."

Samuel Kelly, an english seamen in the eighteenth century, writes that he "exchanged my old sea clothes for a fashionable blue coat, ruffled shirt, etc. with my hair dressed and powdered." For most people, this was their only sight of the sailor – a larger-than-life, exotic figure, usually drunk and apparently carefree. However, the same men, once afloat, were transformed into skilled professionals.

Uniforms for members of the Royal Navy began to be formalised in 1748. Up until then ships’ companies dressed in whatever they owned. In that year the Admiralty decided to regulate naval officers’ uniforms.  The Admiralty order promulgating the uniform regulations of 13 April 1748 commenced:

"Whereas we judge it necessary, in order the better to distinguish the Rank of Sea Officers, to establish a Military uniform cloathing for Admirals, Captains, Commanders and Lieutenants, and judging it also necessary to distinguish their class to be in the Rank of Gentlemen, and give them better credit and figure in executing the commands of their superior officers; you are hereby required and directed to conform yourself to the said Establishment by wearing cloathing accordingly at all proper times; and to take care that such of the aforesaid officers and midshipmen who may be from time to time under your command do the like.."
Prior to 1748 officers, and captains of ships in particular, had worn what they pleased. It has been recorded that one captain had worn a plain black tailcoat and a white top hat. This type of headgear may seem out of place at sea but was commonly worn until 1850 or later. It enjoys a special use to-day though not in our own service: it is the custom in some ports which are icebound in winter for the mayor to award a black top hat (and often a gold- or silver-headed cane) to the first merchant captain to enter the port after the first winter season. Another captain is said to have worn a coat of such thin material that his red braces showed through. Several Royal Canadian Navy officers knowingly perpetuate this custom, if it is one, of wearing red braces.

For those wishing to emulate pirate/priveteer dress, in developing a costume just remember that functionality is the key to success at sea. There is little need for fancy armour or gold braid while climbing out on a yardarm. It is comfort, cost, position withing the crew, as well as personal style which determined a sailor's outfit.

Also, because a sailor travelled the world over, he or she may have borrowed bits of different articles of clothing from a variety of countries and cultures. There are some examples exisiting of western and eastern culture mixed together, although this was somewhat uncommon in European sea-going traditions.

In the past, just as is the case today noble fabric commands a noble price, and when first starting out you may want to develop a basic set of clothes which can be further expanded upon with proceeds from future conquests. Once you have your "working" set, you can then think about a suit of clothes to wear for going ashore or those occasions at "court".