When your local Gilbert and Sullivan company is gearing up to perform one of their finest and funniest operettas, you know you need some quality Pirates of Penzance costumes. Fortunately, theatrical rental shops abound with plenty of choices for Frederic, Mabel, Ruth, the Pirate King, the Major General and all the young ladies and dashing pirates.
History of Pirates of Penzance Costumes
First performed in 1879, the company were all dressed in theatrical costumes of the day, which were only slightly more elaborate and colorful versions of the clothes worn by upper-class women, military men and policemen in nineteenth-century Britain. The pirate costumes were necessarily more exaggerated and ridiculous to heighten the comic fun and drive the romantic plot, because of course the pirates could not truly be seen as menacing. The original Pirate King wore a sailor's middy shirt, a frock coat, an enormous plumed hat with a skull and crossbones logo, a thick belt with an outsized silver buckle, a striped skirt that skimmed his knees, bright tights and buckled shoes. Add an earring, a sword and a moustache, and if he wasn't dangerous, he at least cut a swathe.
Frederic was similarly dressed only he wore a striped shirt with a loose kerchief around his neck and a smaller hat. All the other pirates had variations on these themes.
For her women's pirate costume, Ruth wore an outfit with a slight Eastern flair. She had a ruffled blouse with striped sleeves cut above the wrist to show off bangles, a dagger at her waist, a straight skirt that had tassels, Celtic squares and finished well above her ankles to show off flat boots. She wore a tasseled scarf draped around her hips and a headdress shaped somewhat like a fez.
Modern Pirates of Penzance Costumes
Most productions of The Pirates of Penzance adhere to this basic outline. As the show is nearly always set in 1879, the costumes for the ladies, the Major-General and the police are standard to the period. The pirate costumes, particularly those for the Pirate King, tend more towards the elaborate and the accepted idea of what pirates wear, as popularized most recently in the successful Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
When choosing costumes for your cast, much depends on the look, build and overall style of your singers. If your Pirate King is a dashing, sexy actor, he should have a dashing, sexy costume, the better to command the stage and the audience's heart. When Kevin Kline played the Pirate King on Broadway, he wore black leather trousers, black boots, a loose white shirt with a vest over it and rakish makeup. More recently, the sexy Tony-nominated actor Marc Kudisch wore tight maroon trousers, a white shirt that showed plenty of chest with an open maroon vest, a belt slung low on his hips and a shoulder-length wig topped with a black scarf and eye patch.
As the romantic lead, Frederic should have a gentler look. The striped shirt will set him apart from the other pirates, and slightly looser trousers should keep Mabel interested.
One of the instances where the costumer can go to town is with Ruth's second-act pirate wench costume. Again, it depends on the look and style of your singer. Some productions give Ruth trousers and a low-cut blouse with a tight corset. Others give her multi-colored skirts hitched to the boot-top, or even higher, perhaps to show off striped stockings or fishnets. Since the young ladies spend most of the second act in white nightgowns, Ruth's costume should be bold and colorful. It should also be sexy enough to finally ensnare that wondrous Pirate King.
Renting Pirates of Penzance Costumes
Even the smallest company will find it easier to rent, rather than make, Pirates of Penzance costumes, at least in so far as the ladies, Major-General and police are concerned. A good online source for large rentals is the Costume Holiday House.
If you're in the UK, the best place to get costumes is from the company who originally produced all of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, D'oyly Carte. They are the very model of a modern costume rental archive!