With the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more accessible than ever, and a summer season void of blockbusters, this month we’re diving deep into Disney’s swashbuckling series. Grab your cutlass and hoist the colors: here be Polygon’s take on all things PotC.
While most of the characters sport one or two looks the entire series, Elizabeth Swann, however, sports a grand total of 16. It’s not just because she’s the leading lady, but because Elizabeth undergoes the most dramatic character journey of the whole cast, going from privileged aristocrat to fearsome Pirate King. Not only does she have just as an important journey as Will, but hers can also be told through the nuances of wardrobe.
Every one of Elizabeth’s outfits across the main trilogy, designed by costume designer Penny Rose, is a certifiable Look ™. But some are more iconic — and speak more to her character — than others.
We’ve broken down every single of the 15 outfits that Elizabeth wore in the main trilogy (sorry, not touching Dead Men Tell No Tales here) and ranked them, according to general aesthetic and symbolic meaning.
16. The fancy fainting dress from Curse of the Black Pearl
Elizabeth is at first thrilled to receive such a lovely gift from her father, the latest look from London, but she quickly realizes the intention is to make her look nice for Norrington, who is going to propose that day. Not only does the dress stifle her ability to breathe, it also represents the stifling expectations thrust upon her: Elizabeth is expected to make a smart match, not for love but for station. This gets the bottom ranking because even though it kickstarts our grand adventure and Elizabeth’s arc over the series, it’s her at her most unrealized, still trapped in the role society has stuck her in.
15. The execution dress from Curse of the Black Pearl
After the adventures Elizabeth goes through in Curse of the Black Pearl, the peach ensemble she wears at the end of the movie is rather demure. It gets a leg up over the fainting dress because at least she’s loosened the corset and also takes a stand in it! But overall, it feels like a very tame ending for Elizabeth and definitely not indicative of where she goes from here.
14. The marooned underdress from Curse of the Black Pearl
Elizabeth Swann is a capable protagonist and the moments where she’s caught off-guard are few and far between, but the moment Barbossa forces her to walk the plank in narry but her underthings is one of them. Thankfully, she manages to outsmart Jack and find a way off the island, taking advantage of her privilege to save both their necks. Even stripped down, Elizabeth is a force to be reckoned with.
13. Fancy Chinese dress from At World’s End
Elizabeth appears in this fancy Chinese dress when Captain Sao Feng has dolled her up, thinking that she is actually the goddess Calypso. It’s similar to the underdress in that it’s representative of Elizabeth at one of her weakest moments, yet she still manages to play along with the situation and circumvent the expectations men have of her. He does, uh, forcibly kiss her though, so not cool. This gets a leg up over the nightgown, however, for being a generally prettier dress.
12. The Bath House robe from At World’s End
The creepy attendant at the bathhouse makes Elizabeth — but none of the men! — strip down into a bathrobe. Very rude, but that doesn’t stop her from swinging a sword when the time comes. This is higher than the other “Elizabeth was forced into this by someone else” because she gets to wield not one, but TWO swords while wearing it.
11. The Singapore Disguise from At World’s End
While not particularly glamorous, the disguise is indicative of just how well Keira Knightley pulls off enemsebles that are pretty plain. It’s not particularly memorable, but it does what it needs to do, Elizabeth looks much better than everyone else even when she is disheveled, and also it marks her fully growing into the pirate she becomes, especially with the prolonged scene where she unloads all the weapons she’s managed to stick under it. She wears some variation of this black shirt and pants combo in the first part of World’s End, sans the straw hat.
10. The passage from England dress from Curse of the Black Pearl
Young Elizabeth looks very cute in this grey-ish purple ensemble. It is eerie enough to set the tone of the movie, especially as she discovers young Will floating on the refuge. This is the first we see of Elizabeth’s more rebellious nature, as she refuses to believe that all pirates are scum and then blatantly lies to Norrington when she steals Will’s pirate-y necklace off him.
9. The 10 years later outfit from At World’s End
In the post-credit scene, Elizabeth wears a smart-looking waistcoat over a flowy blouse and skirt. It’s a happy medium between her sea-faring looks and the dresses of her youth and for that, I have the utmost respect for it. What has Elizabeth been doing in this 10 year span? We never really find out, but perhaps she’s pioneering looks for women that are both stylish, yet freeing.
8. The just-got-laid dress shirt thing from At World’s End
The one thing Elizabeth has wanted to do from the beginning of the first movie is bang Will Turner and, by God, she does it! Is this just a modification of what she was wearing earlier? Maybe, but it symbolizes Elizabeth getting that D after going across the world and to hell and back, and for that, we salute it. Only Keira Knightley can pull off wearing just a shirt like it’s a hot couture look.
7. The billowing nightgown from Curse of the Black Pearl
Nothing says Gothic Romance quite like a billowing white nightgown. Even if the first Pirates of the Caribbean is ultimately an action-adventure, the ghost story tinges make it appropriate from some genre-y costuming. Elizabeth spends a good amount of time in this nightgown and what a lovely nightgown it is.
6. The ruined wedding gown from Dead Man’s Chest
I lied: the one thing that says Gothic Romance more than a billowing white nightgown is a wedding gown ruined by the rain. Elizabeth doesn’t get the fancy wedding her father probably wanted for her, which is a shame because she looks quite fetching in the ivory, but then again, a fancy wedding probably just wasn’t true to her character. She takes advantage of this fancy dress and uses it to pretend to be a ghost in order to get some sailors to take her where she needs to go. So not only does it fit the horror roots of the trilogy, it also speaks to her quick-thinking and innovation.
5. The red dress from Curse of the Black Pearl
Barbossa basically forces her to wear this dress, which puts it in the realm of the other outfits Elizabeth kinda wore only because she had to, but there are reasons for the high ranking. One is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. This blood red ensemble is probably the prettiest dress in the entire franchise, fancy fainting dress and wedding gown included. It looks a bit eerie and certainly thinking about how Barbossa got his hands on it might lend itself to a darker backstory, but that just tonally fits with the revelation that Elizabeth is aboard a ship full of undead pirates. Two is that it’s one of the few connections to the theme park attraction that inspired the franchise, this one being a callback to a problematic part of the ride, wherein pirates auction off women, particularly a woman in a red dress (it’s since been revamped). In a way, Elizabeth’s arc — wearing that dress as a captive, but ultimately out-pirating all the pirates — foreshadows the woman in the ride turning from a captive lady to a pirate herself.
4. The sailor disguise from Dead Man’s Chest
Keira Knightley looks devastatingly beautiful in every period gown, but no matter how decorated the period gown, she will always look 1000% more gorgeous in period menswear. This is just the irrefutable truth. (If you have doubts, might I direct you to Colette.) Is it believable that Elizabeth tricked an entire ship into thinking she was a young lad without any suspicion? Maybe not, but she sure looks amazing.
3. The soldier disguise from Curse of the Black Pearl
Elizabeth’s best look of the first movie is when she refuses to sit still, disguises herself in a soldier’s uniform, and heads out to save the boys. It’s red like the Red Dress, but absolutely iconic. The jacket is undone, so it walks the fine line of super proper and disheveled, and boy, Keira Knightley is the ultimate queen of that fine line.
2. The sailor disguise, but pirate version from Dead Man’s Chest
This is almost the same outfit as the sailor disguise, but Elizabeth lets her hair down, dons a tricorn hat, and generally seems more at ease. This is the most traditionally pirate-y outfit she wears, complete with the tricorn cap, a generally scruffy appearance, and all the cunning pirate attitude Elizabeth has been cultivating over the course of a movie and a half. The looks of Dead Man’s Chest can generally be described as rougher, toucher, and scruffier. Elizabeth’s pivot is less drastic than Norrington’s, but that’s because there’s always been a touch of pirate within her. She fits this look naturally, one wonders if this is where she truly belongs…
1. Pirate King Outfit from At World’s End
Every moment of the series has led to Elizabeth taking charge as Pirate King and wow, she has the Look to end all Looks. She’s basically wearing a variation of Sao Feng’s armor, but tailored to fit her. Hat on, she looks ready to fight. With the hat off, her hair billowing in the wind, she’s wild and free,
It’s in this armor she makes the choice to stick with her crew, even when offered more comfortable quarters by the East India Trading company, ultimately sealing her loyalty to the pirates instead of her aristocratic roots. From the beginning of Curse of the Black Pearl, Elizabeth was a sharp and quick-thinking heroine, even when she was stuck in tightly corseted dresses or billowing nightgowns. But in the Pirate King outfit, she’s not just a cunning protagonist; she’s a leader, negotiating with enemies and rallying the Pirate lords together for one final stand.
It’s fitting, then, that this is the outfit she gets married in. Elizabeth may be a fearless Pirate King by the end of the trilogy, but she’s also a woman in love. A wedding in white was never going to be fitting of her and Will’s epic romance as much as vows exchanged in the midst of battle.