History in the details: Smocks

History in the details: Smocks

Jayne Shrimpton goes down to the farm to explore this rural attire

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist

In July we covered the history of dungarees – a form of overall. An earlier protective garment was the smock, a historic garment chiefly associated with British rural dress, but also adopted by other workers as a cover-all.

The male ‘smock frock’ or smock, as it was later called, is believed to have originated with the loose linen or canvas coats worn by 17th-century farm carters. These early garments probably inspired the roomy, long-sleeved, knee- or calf-length ‘smock frock’ that was used from the mid-1700s as protection from the elements and to prevent the clothes beneath from becoming dirty. Different types of smock fastened in various ways over the regular knee breeches and shirt, but all styles used several yards of linen, stout cotton or drabbet (twilled cotton) material. Most were natural cream, beige, stone or buff-coloured, those dyed brown, green and blue probably regional variants, for there were contrasts between the smocks of different areas. They were mainly worn in the Midlands, southern England and parts of Wales and their use varied with the task: while unsuitable for wear with farm machinery, the smock was especially favoured as outerwear by shepherds, drovers, carters and waggoners, who worked outdoors whatever the weather. Smocks were also adopted by many other land workers, including rural craftsmen, gardeners and ferreters.

Smocks first developed their distinctive honeycomb embroidery in the late-1700s, this complex decorative stitching often demonstrating high quality workmanship and peaking around the mid-1800s. The most elaborate embroidered smocks surviving today in museum collections are presumed not to have been work garments, but probably special garments kept for weddings and ‘Sunday best’. From the mid-19th century onwards the traditional smock worn in the countryside and by agricultural folk when visiting town gradually grew outdated, especially among younger men who preferred sturdy corduroy or moleskin trousers and jacket – a functional version of the regular male suit. However, many elderly shepherds in Norfolk, Suffolk and Sussex continued the tradition until the Second World War, when smocks died out with the last generation of wearers. Henceforth the loose smock-style overall would be worn mainly by artists.

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Henry Alken’s Sporting Scrapbook, 1827
Plate from Henry Alken’s Sporting Scrapbook, 1827. In the early 19th century the sturdy cotton or linen rural smock was worn by many male farm workers in southern England, the Midlands and parts of Wales
Dorset peasants
‘Dorset peasants’, c1840. Two Dorset agricultural labourers and a boy wear protective smocks over their trousers, which had largely replaced knee breeches by the Victorian era
Winifred Knights, artist, in her studio
Photo of Winifred Knights, artist, in her studio, 1923. Between the wars, elderly shepherds in some counties still favoured traditional smocks; otherwise they were mainly worn as overalls by painters and potters

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