Clothes Make the Pirate, Clothes Make the Queer: The collusion of pirate imagery and queer visibility

By J. Ricky Price & H. Howell Williams

As he had suggested in his talk to the indifferent cat, he had constantly wondered what sort of a pirate chief he would have made if circumstances had enabled him to uncover that hidden streak in him…Out of that pondering naturally was born an intense desire to see, in actual garb, what he would look like as a pirate captain…He had often made up his faces before the mirror. He was fairly well satisfied with the faces. But how much would those diabolic faces be helped by the proper dress and equipment? This extravagance of the hobby must be kept truly a secret from all the world, he reflected.

I. The journalist turned pirate-fiction author, Holman Day, presents the ‘rollicking yarn’ of Tremble-at-Evil Tidd in his book The Clothes Make the Pirate (Figure 1). The book, which became a feature length silent film in 1925, depicts the struggles of an unappreciated tailor (Tidd), who has a secret dream of becoming a pirate captain, a dream he hides from his overbearing wife and his uncharitable clients in the years before the Revolutionary War in Boston. Tidd’s fantasies are buttressed by his ability as a tailor; he creates the costume for his hidden desires and plays out the part of a pirate captain in his private quarters, until a series of events allow him to act out his fantasy in real life. While this farce may have little relevance to the modern world or the study of literature, the story offers a useful platform to explore the affective power of the image of the pirate. Our hero, Tidd, sets out on an adventure where he is playing the part of a pirate and wholeheartedly accepted as one—not due to his actions but because of his garb. More specifically the tale of the transformation of Tremble-at-Evil Tidd into the ferocious pirate captain Dixy Bull offers a cultural site to meditate on the shifting, fluid and contradictory components of pirate masculinity that echo throughout style, popular culture and the presentation of identity.

In this paper we set out to explore the affective echoes of piracy within cultures of masculinity. How does the presentation of one’s self, the clothes one wears, the style one ascribes to, bind certain bodies together and set other bodies apart? We read the tailor as a queer figure caught in a place between fantasy and reality, between a world of fantastical costume and outlandish adventure and a humdrum daily life filled with tedium and un-mended socks. Through this tale, we explore the desire to dress one’s body in new vestments so as to change one’s identity. Our hero, “Tremble-At-Evil” becomes a figure who causes others to tremble (Figure 2), morphing through a change in clothes. Through an exploration of theories of affect, historical constructions of ‘the pirate’, and an analysis of queer subcultures, this paper investigates how the symbols, histories, and mythologies of the pirate work to bind particular cultures of masculinity together and set others apart.

A number of key compenents of the theories of affect help us fully address Tailor Tidd within this framework. Sarah Ahmed employs an economic metaphor to describe the intricate web in which bodies, symbols and emotions work to construct the boundaries of our social world. “In such affective economies,” she writes, “emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities–or bodily space with social space–through the very intensity of their attachments.” For Ahmed, the emotional world is not a set of ephemeral feelings that exist inside the body of individuals, but rather is a series of interconnected movements and exchanges creating an economy of thought and feeling. The intensity of those feelings, or the significance placed upon them collectively, allows certain emotions to develop as a currency between actors, bodies, and symbols. Ahmed describes a conceptual framework for analyzing the affective power of certain symbols over others. We trace some of these affective exchanges within the world of the pirate and queer subcultures. It is important to note that this is not an argument aligning the figure of the pirate with the figure of the queer, but rather, following Ahmed, an analysis of how the exchanges of emotions relating to both figures are connected. It is our intention to trace some of the affective economies demonstrated so trenchantly in Day’s The Clothes Make the Pirate within two distinct and divergent queer subcultures utilizing similar currencies of masculinity: the subcultures of leathermen and Drag Kings. Therefore, our aim is to show how each of these sites employ and reflect certain masculine affects which tie them together and simultaneously set them apart from mainstream society.

Ahmed describes the process of ‘adherence’ wherein “emotions work by sticking figures together.” For Ahmed, emotions ‘stick’ to things in our everyday life. Feelings and emotions about historical symbols take on new meaning within different contexts. This ‘stickiness’ creates a shared identity based upon a collective understanding of the use and employment of those symbols. A key component of Ahmed’s economic model lies in the idea “…that while emotions do not positively reside in a subject or a figure, they still work to bind subjects together. Indeed, to put it more strongly, the nonresidence of emotions is what makes them ‘binding.’” This model paints a complex picture where emotions, attached to certain bodies and certain symbols, are reified, reinvented and serve new purposes when combined in different contexts. The past affective qualities work in concert with the newly formed qualities informing bodies and groups of bodies of norms, identities, and narratives that are communicable across disparate groups. In short, this ‘stickiness’ is involved in the creation, negation, usage and refusal of certain affective symbols that help echo through social identities. In order to trace these echoes we turn to the pirate.

II. Since the Golden Age of piracy the pirate has occupied a sort-of dual identity. Variously brutal and charming, inhumane and chivalrous, the pirate has figured as a mythical anomaly occupying many positions at once. Actual pirates were dangerous beings who operated exclusively for their own profit; and yet the fact that pirates could maintain some order in packs of men united by self-made constitutions in floating collectives lends pirate narratives a nostalgic reverence for homosociality. We want to both understand the way that literary representations of the pirate were able to contain the dialectic of fear and admiration within the character of the pirate and to posit the pirate as a symbol of a complex masculinity. By exploring period pirate narratives, such as Charles Johnson’s General history of…Pyrates we can analyze the ways that pirates were successfully constructed as the masculine outsider. To make sense of the complexity of pirate identity in literary presentations we make use of the notion of the “piratical subject” employed by Hans Turley.

In Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash Turley is less interested in proving that pirates had homosexual interactions with one another and more interested in understanding the ways that pirate imagery operated to complicate traditional understandings of propriety, law, and masculinity. To accomplish his goals, he distinguishes between the actual pirates who sailed the high seas in the Golden Age and the fictional depiction of pirates thereafter, which represent the “piratical subject.” Wrapped up in the transition from criminal to legend is the conversion of pirate masculinity into a subversive presentation of a gender identity crafted outside normative society. In Turley’s words the piratical subject merges “the legally defined pirate…and the culturally revered pirate, a hypermasculine, transgressive, desiring subject. Through historical and fictional representations of the pirate, the two depictions merged into the antihero—the piratical subject.” For Turley, the piratical subject represents the merging of the historical pirate and the fictional pirate.

We can elaborate forms of masculinity by analyzing the piratical subject through the lens of internal contradictions between criminal and cultural icon. Turley states, “these heroes and antiheroes push the boundaries of what counts as non-deviant masculinity.” “[F]iction and history–like legend and reality–merge. An analysis of this merger becomes the means to understand how “identity” and notions of subjectivity are much more complex than a simple dichotomy of villain and hero, “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” Looking at a few cases highlights what we mean by the duality of representations of piratical subjects.

Our analysis begins, as does the trope of pirate literature, with Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. Generally attributed to Daniel Defoe in 1724, A General History is the foundation of the pirate narrative in the 18th century. Modern conceptions of pirates such as Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet have their origin in A General History. A review of a few of the colorful tales told by Johnson will help reveal the affective connections among the piratical subjects and contemporary counter-subjectivities.

Blackbeard was described variously as demonic and handsome and for this reason he has come to stand both as the archetypal pirate and the ideal piratical subject (Figure 3). Johnson’s account of Blackbeard in A General History tells of the terror and pillage rendered by Blackbeard and his men, and yet there is also reverence for his courage at death. When Captain Maynard of North Carolina fells Blackbeard, the pirate had already sustained “five and twenty wounds, and five of them by Shot.” Johnson regarded Blackbeard as a “courageous brute” and a mythical figure capable of fighting through the trauma of five gunshots among twenty-five wounds.  As Turley writes, “He may be a “brute,” but this brutality allows him to fight with almost super-human spirit….If Blackbeard is not a “hero,” then, what is he? He is defined by the conflicting depictions of his transgressive position as both cultural antihero—courageous—and at the same time a dangerous criminal—brutish.” Blackbeard and his lore typify the modern connotations of pirate as both ruthless criminal and masculine cultural icon. Perhaps no other figure is so clearly associated with piracy’s golden age that inspires both reverence and disgust. Most modern pirate narratives obscure and occlude the pillage and criminality of piracy in favor of the swash-buckling and debonair piratical subject, perhaps best represented by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow.

Major Stede Bonnet’s background was an unfamiliar one in the typical pirate narrative. Johnson explains that what drove Bonnet to piracy was neither greed nor desirousness, but a “Disorder in his Mind, which had been but too visible in him…which is said to have been occasioned by some Discomforts he found in a married State.” Piracy here is a mental disorder that results from marital stress. Pirate historians Jenifer Marx and Clinton Black hypothesize that, like the fictional Tidd, Bonnet was pushed into piracy by a shrewish wife. Like Tidd, Bonnet’s lack of pirate skills was no impediment to his “performance” as pirate.

Johnson also introduces Captain Avery and the Madagascar pirate colony. Avery embarked to “Madagascar, with a Design of making [his] own Fortune, and that of all of the brave Fellows joined with [him].” Avery took over role as captain and he and the remaining crew sailed to the African island. Upon arrival they encountered a group of settlers already living on the island with whom they would “join together for their common Safety.”

The raid by Avery on the Indian Mogul’s daughter typifies the discursive circulation of piratical practices back home in colonial Britain and the “noise” created by the piratical subject. The ship, being bound for the holy land, carried “all their Slaves and Attendants, their rich habits and jewels, with Vessels of Gold and Silver, and great Sums of Money.” Johnson writes, “The great Noise [the raid] made in Europe, as well as India, was the Occasion of all these romantick Stories which were formed of Avery’s Greatness.” Avery made a “great Noise in the World” and “was looked upon to be a Person of as great Consequence; he was represented in Europe, as one that had raised himself to the Dignity of a King.” While the East India Company and the Mogul condemned the raid, popular accounts of the tale marveled at the “Greatness” of Avery and his men and the “great noise” their society had created. The raid refuses reduction as either a moral criticism of depraved pirate savagery or a masculine heroic tale of bravery.

Captain Avery’s Madagascar was its own self-sufficient colony outside the law and order regime of 17th century Britain.  The pirate colonists garbed themselves in “the Skins of Beasts without any tanning, but with all the hair on.” They wore “no[t] a Shoe nor Stocking, so they looked like the Pictures of Hercules in the Lion’s Skin; and being overgrown with Beard, and Hair upon their bodies, they appeared the most savage Figures that a Man’s Imagination can frame.” This description of clothing of the Madagascar pirates is instructive for our project in three ways. First, Johnson describes the clothing in contrast to colonial notions of propriety (“the most savage Figures that a Man’s Imagination can frame”). Second, this imagery of the pirate is distinguished from normative civilization (“Skin of Beasts without any tanning, but with all the hair on”). Finally, Johnson makes the mythical connection between these “savage” pirates and classical depictions of masculinity (“Hercules in the Lion’s Skin”). These hide-bound pirates have successfully transitioned from acceptable members of British society to hirsute savages; more specifically, Johnson’s description marks the transition from pirates to piratical subjects.

III. Having briefly reviewed the construction of pirate masculinity we can trace these affective qualities in contemporary queer subcultures. In Faeries Bears and Leathermam, Peter Hennen conducts an ethnographic exploration of three archetypes of gay male subculture. For the purpose of our presentation, the culture of Leathermen sets in high relief the navigation between hypermasculinity and homosocial organization (Figure 4). Hennan describes Leathermen emerging from the masculine motorcycle culture of the 1950s stating that they work to

foster a hypermasculine image and, through a carefully managed self-presentation that includes various articles of leather clothing (e.g. vests, chaps, caps, pants), a strong association with rough sex, bondage, discipline, and a variety of sadomasochistic practices. As exemplars of gay hypermasculinity, leathermen are uniquely positioned to appreciate the radical constructed nature of gender. As Rick one of my interview subjects, put it “if you really knew what was under this leather, you wouldn’t be intimidated at all.

What then is intimidating about ‘Rick’? It is the association between visible clothing and perceived rough sexual encounters. Outsiders are intimidated by what his appearance represents, not his actual body.  Here we see the circulation of a hypermasculine affective quality at work in the modern social world. It is a fear of the sexual savage who loudly presents his identity. In the same way that Captain Avery and his colony of pirates donned themselves in the skin of animals Rick uses leather as a communicator of violent sexual desire outside the discipline of normativity. Not only does Rick’s outfit distance his body from the ‘normal,’ it also propositions potential sex partners by its mere presence. It is both sign and proposition, both active and passive, and resides not in his physical body or the essence of the leather but within an exchange of masculine currency. Turning back to Ahmed’s work, we see clearly the creation of the boundaries within this social world through the affective circulation of hypermasculine homosexuality, of brutality, of violence, sex, and power. Here the leather vest makes the leatherman and defines his specific position in these dual worlds.   We can see a similar exchange of currency of masculinity in the Drag King subculture explored in the work of Judith Jack Halberstam in Female Masculinity (1998) and In a Queer Time and Place (2005). Halberstam describes the work of the Drag King in terms of irony and parody: the figure of the Drag King pokes holes in the narrative of the normative masculine subject (Figure 5). Halberstam’s Drag Kings are involved in a project of gender expression and community building. Whereas leathermen are exchanging in masculine currencies of brutality, Drag Kings are exchanging masculine currencies of parody. Our hero, Tremble-At-Evil Tidd, is also used as a comic device that pokes and prods the expectations of masculinity.

Tidd admitted to himself, our of his tailor’s experience, that the clothes do make a great difference in the looks of a man. While he engaged this person’s eyes, Tidd was perfectly sure that his own clothes made all the difference in the world, right then… Tidd ran his hand over the chin which had shed the drooping whiskers so recently tweaked with careless contempt by the spark of the British navy. Memory of the affair, even if he was still in doubt as to the person’s identity, helped Tidd to make up one of his ugly faces in order that he might hide behind that mask from any lurking suspicion.

Tidd, too then is performing in drag. The butt of the comic joke in The Clothes Make the Pirate lies in his improvised performance. But what happens when one authentically seeks to use style as a marker of idenity?

Going beyond the parody work of Drag King performances, Halberstam points to Catherine Opie’s photography as exemplary of what she describes as “female masculinity.” Specifically, Opie’s work is a rejection of irony and ambiguity and is instead a meaningful depiction of the authentic lives of butch lesbians and transmen. In her photograph “Self Portrait-Pervert,” we see all of these masculine affects coming together to form the boundary of the artist herself (Figure 6). She’s playing not only with the culture of leather but with SM, torture, self-inflicted violence, and savagery. Like Blackbeard in Johnson’s General History, Opie represents a courageous brute. This figure cannot be silenced; she is the noise that cannot be ignored. She is a hyper-masculine figure in a female body. She disrupts the expected reaction to the female nude by trading in the currency of masculine affect.

Here then we see a rupture of the norm through style and affective meanings. The floating collectives of savage men, the fluid gender of the sexual outlaw, the obstruction of trade, and the disruption of affective economies. The savage is dressed in the skin of an animal; leather communicates violence and pleasure. The uncivilized noise of the pirate call recalls the inability to ignore the queer subject. Style, then, operates as a political act, best described in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style:

Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements, towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus. Our task becomes, like Barthes’, to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code on the glossy surfaces of style, to trace them out as ‘maps of meaning’ which obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to resolve or conceal.

The clothes we wear, the style we choose, though seemingly superficial, contain entire languages of signs. Signs placed upon the body, signs flooded with meaning from the past, the present, and an imagined future. In more ways than one, the clothes make the pirate. ❉