School Uniform:  French School Smocks


Figure 1.--These French boys in a late 1910s or early 1920s photograph appear to be wearing fairly uniform smocks. The fact that they all wear smocks must mean that the school required it. Only a few boys, however, wear large white collars and bows 

French boys have not commonly worn formal school uniforms like their across the Channel English cousins. French boys beginning in the 1870s, however, began wearing smocks to school. The smock certainly served the purpose of a uniform, covering differences in the clothes worn by children from different economic circumstances. It also protected the boy's clothes. In an era when clothes were expensive and writing was done with basic pens and ink wells, a black smock made considerabe sense. Through much of the first half of the 20th century, elementary school boys in France wore school smocks over their clothes. As this was a very common practice, it gave the appearance of a school uniform. Not all French schoolboys wore smocks. One account from 1900 describes a French boy who began the lycee wearing a sailor suit with long curls his mother dearly loved. Smocks appear, however to have been fairly common school wear through the 1930s and early 1950s, but declined after World War II (1945). For some reason, many boys, especially before the 1920s, wore belts over their smocks. I'm not sure why this was--there does not appear to have been any practical purpose. They were still seen in thr 1960s, but mostly with younger boys. Smocks became increasingly less worn in the 1970s.

Terminology

"Tablier" is the most common term for a child's smock, especially a school smock. HBC is unsure about the derivation of the word, but the word may come from the word "table" which is used for a school desk in French. While "tablier" is by far the most common word used, it is by no means the only term used. In particular we have noted "blouse" and "sarrau" used. These terms actually have more specific uses, but are occassionally used for school smock by French speakers.

Regulations

France has one of Western Europe's most centralized educational system. Although I have few details, the French Government appears to have instituted school smocks in the 1870s. I don't know if French boys had already begun wearing smocks and the Government simply acceted an already existing trend or if the Government's decision introduced a new style. French boys in the late 19th Century do seeed to have worn smocks much more than American and British boys as well as other Europen boys. The smock seems to have been more of a Mediterrean style as Italian boys also wore smocks. The decision to require French boys to wear smocks was taken by the Third Republic, the Government replacing Napoleon III after the disatrous Franco-Prussian War. The Government required children in state elementary schools to wear them. The Government's decision seems to have been based on a philosophy of social eqality. Gverment leaders felt that as the smock covered a boys' clothes that would be fewer differences between wealthy and less affluent children. I'm not sure if the Government spelled out precise styles. (Hopefully a French visitor to this web site will enlighten us and provide fewer details.) While I have no information on the actual Government regulations, it is clear from available images that some schools were enforcing regulations requiring that all boys wear similar smocks. Smocks were in the 1870s were mandated by the Government. It's unclear to me if they provided any specific stylistic requirements. Some schools in the early 20th Century which required smocks appear to have required specific styles as images exist with the boys all similrly outfitted. Many schools ecentually left it up to the parents as to wether ttheir children wore smocks. As a result many different styles emerged.

Uniforms

France from the Third Republic (1870) up until the modern day unlike other countries such as England never spelled out the type and the color of the clothes that the pupils were required to wear. French boys have never worn uniforms with a few exceptions such as Scouts, a few private schools, and choirs. Some summer camps had simple uniforms. A French reader also reports that uniforms were also worn on certain occasiions in high school. HBC is not sure just what uniforms were involved here.

Attributes

The smock had several attributes that made it a useful school outfit. These were especially important in the 19th and early 20th cerentury, but declined in importance after World War II. A school smock was seen as a way of reducing social distinctions. Not only did the smock serve a social purpose, but it was a very practical garment for young children who were often not very careful with their clothes. The ptotective smock was also very helpful in reducing mother's laundry load. We do not think as much about laundry today. Unlike many school garments, a smock could be brought in a large size and not look bad. Sleves and hemds could be easily let out.


Figure 2.--French school smocks were initially farily standard, but by the late 1930s they came in many different styles for both boys and girls.

Styles

I have very few details on smock styles, but hopefully our French HBC visitors can provide us some details. We have noted many different variations in French smocks. I believe that the smocks commonly worn from the 1870s through the 1940s were almost all back buttoning smocks. These smocks buttoned straight down the back. French boys have since worn many styles of smocks, including back buttoning, side buttoning, and front buttoning. The front buttoning smocks sometimes had the buttons set somewhat to the side rather than down the center. I belive that smocks for boys and girls were intially quite similar, if not identical. I'm not sure why this back buttoning style was adopted as it made it difficult for boys to put them on and take them off. It made some sence for younger boys as it was easier for mother to help them dress, but it made it difficult for even older boys to put then on or take then off by themselves. Beginning in the 1950s, front buttoning smocks became increasingly popular for boys, although some boys still wore the back buttoning style. The back buttoning style, however, was still widely worn by girls. The three basic types of school smocks deal with how the smock closed. The French had different word to describe these smocks.
Blouse: The word "blouse" has several meanings. It can be used as in English for a shirt-like garment. It is also commonly used for smocks like lab-style smocks closed in front of the body. This is a term mean smock in general, for school, work, men, and women. This word isn't used concerning specifically childrens or school smocks.
Cardigan: Similar to the cardigan sweater as used in English. I didn't even know this word was used for smock/blouse in 1966. Undoubtedly it was to renovate the concept of blouse which surely sounded old-fashioned to the young people of this era.
Sarrau: I have noted "sarrau" used for smock, but am unsure as to just what type of smock is meant.
Tablier: Commonly closed at the back of the body. This was the most common word used for a school smock.

Colors and Patterns

I am not sure if the French Third Republic regulations in the 1870s spelled out the color of the smocks ti be worn. They may have as all the early images I have seen show dark colored smocks, presumably black or dark blue. Reports from French visitors to HBC suggest that boys in the 1950s were still wearing dark smocks, black, dark blue, or gray. They tell me that light colored smocks were mostly reserved for girls. The first French school smocks were black. Grey smocks subsequently appeard for boys. Pink and pale blue smocks appeared for girls. Plaid smocks also appeared. I'm not sure if boys commonly wore these, although some of the newspapers adds for smocks picture boys in some of the plaid ones and even other patterns such as gingam. SDome smocks were basically solid colors, but with colored or patterned detailng such as ginham. As more diverse colored smocks appeared in the 1950s, boys still appear to have most commonly worn the dark-colored, solid colored smocks.

Stylistic Elements

HBC has noted a variety of stylistic elements observed with French smocks. One of the most important is the color of smocks, but there are many different elements associated with French school smocks which come in many highy varied forms. Most smocks, except for gingham smocks were solid colors. A few had detailing of various forms. Usually the detailing was some kind of printed checked or gingam material across the front or around the collar to contrast with the solid colored smock. French boys do not appear to have commonly worn large white collars and bows like Itlalian boys. We have noted Belgian school boys with wide white Eton collars and floppy bows during the 1910s. We have not seen this style being commonly worn by French boys, but do not know for a fact that it was not. I have noted French school smocks in a wide variety of lengths. Some appear to be quite short, almost like a shirt others are quite long extending below the knees. There are many other lengths between these two extremes in images from French schools. Some smocks came with belts of the same material as the smock. In the early 20th century smocks were often worn with a leather belt. The belt had no real purpose than as a stylistic element. Wearing belts over smocks became less common in France after the 1920s.

Material

HBC still has little information on the material used for French school smocks. Gingham (Vichy) were the most popular material. Both boys and girls wore gingam smcks during 1936-1970.

Headwear

We do not have a lot ofinormation as to the headwear worn with school smocks. We believe a lot of boys did not wear headwear to school. French boys in the late-19th Century well into the 20th Century, as best we can tell if they wore headwear to school, often wore berets. Our information on the 19th century is limited, but we note quite another of examples in the World War I era. We do not see any other type of headwear commonly worn with the school smocks. Other headwear might be worn during the winter, but still we see berets. Stocking caps were also worn in the north. A schoolboy with a a smock and beret became a virtual symbol of French boyhood, like flat caps and kniclkers in America. While girls also wore smocks, they did not wear berets. Berets were a boys' garment. Berets were still commonly worn in the 1940s, but began to declime after World War II. We do not see many in the 1950s, especilly after mid-decade. We do not see boys earing them in a cocky way like the military and Scouts. Rather they were often pulled down a bit, rather like American girls wore tams in the early-20th century. We mostly see boys wearing dark blue or black smocks. Theywere made from felt material.

Conventions

The smock were worn for school and appear to have been primarily a school garment. This appears to have varied somewhat over time. We note images of boys in the early 20th century wearing smocks both during school and after school. Many boys do bot seem to have bothered to take off their smocks after school. A good example is boys playing during World War I. This appears to have gradually changed. After World war II, most boys took off their smocks as soom as they got home. A French reader who wore a smock for school during the 1950s tells us, "Boys commonly put on their smocks just before leaving for school in the monrning. After school we would take off their smocks as soon as they got home."

Seasonality

Smocks were not worn seasonally. Rather they were worn all year round. I'm not sure if there were different weights of smocks for seasonal wear, but this does not seem to have been the case. Rather boys appear to have worn sweaters and jackets for winterwear rather than heavier smocks.

Chronology

The school smock, beginning in the 1870s, dominated French school wear for nearly a century. in smock and the beret and smock became a symbol for the French schoolboy. Smocks are now little seen in France. HBC has little information on early school smocks. The Government of the Third Republic in the 1870s required elemetary school children, boys and girls, to wear smocks. The primary reason was to reduce differences between afluent children and those from more modest families. The early smocks appear to have been mostly black and back-buttoning. Schools smocks were still commonly worn by French boys after World War I (1914-18) in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s during German occupation (1940-44). Many photographic images during this period show boys in smocks. Americans are familiar with images from World War II. French boys still commonly wore school smocks after World War II (1939-45). Photographs from the 1940s and early 1950s still show many boys in smocks. The popularity of smocks, however, began to decline by the late 1950s. This custom began to become less common in the 1960s. Over the years conventions as to waht age boy wore smocks as well as styles and colors changed.


Figure 6.--.This 1957 ad shows back buttoning smocks for younger boys. Notice that one boy's smock is plaid and the other has embroidered smocking on the front. 
 

Ages

The ages at which French boys wore smocks has varied over time. It has primarily been primary-age children that have worn smocks. HBC has noted, however, younger teenage boys wearing smocks in the late 19th and early 20th century. This may have been because the smocks were required in many schools. We are not sure just when school regulations changed, but by the 1920s, probably earlier, smocks were no longer required at most schools. Even so, most primary school boys wore them. Within the primary schools they were more common with the younger children. This was primarily the choice of the parents. Thus it up to the parents as to what age for which smocks were appropriate. Most mothers chose them for boys through 8 years of age and they were still quite common to age 10 years. After that the proprtion of boys wearing smocks began to decline as did the age of the boys wearing them. Age also affected the type and styling, although this varied over time. The -- the back buttonning smocks were for boy 4-8 years, sometime even for boys up to age 10 years. This sort of smock was called " tablier " Older boys wore smocks that were front buttonning. This sort of smock was called " blouse ".

Gender Variations

Both boys and girls in France have worn smocks. There were differences, however, between the genders in the wearing of smocks. HBC is not yet sure about styling of 19th century and early 20th century smocks, but by the 1930s there were some clear differences between boys' and girls' smocks and the age at which they were worn. Generally speaking in the 20th century, smocks were worn to an older age by girls than boys. There were also stylistic differences in the smocks. One of the principal differences were that girl's smocks tied in a bow at the back like many dresses. Young boys wearing rompers might have back tieing bows, but boys' school smocks did not. Some had waist bands that buttoned in the back, but they did not tie in the back like girls' smocks often did. There were also differences in the colors and patterns worn. The trim and detailong of boys' and girls' smocks also often varried. These differences varied over time.

Social Class

HBC has not yet aquired much information on social class factors. One French reader reports that once the Government made schools smocks optional, not all boys wore smocks. Some individual schools required them, but at many schools it was up to the parents. Some children from poor families did not wear smocks. These poorer children often wore long pants to school at a time when most boys wore short pants. HBC finds this interesting because the Third Republic primarily instituted school smocks so that all children would at least appaer equal and so poor children without nice clothes would not feel out of place. Yet once they were made optional it was the poor children more than their more affluent classmates who stoped wearing them. Presumably the reason was the added expense of the smock, but HBC is not sire of this.

Accompanying Clothing

Boys in primary school before World War I commonly wore kneepants. Boys after World War I commonly wore a shirt and short pants with smocks. This was somewhat seasonal sweaters and jackes might be added in cool weather. A French reader tells us, "Younger children in kindergarden ( maternelle ) might only wear short wool underpants under his smock. These younger boy also commonly wore rompers. Primary age girls wore dresses under their smocks. Little girls might also wear very short underpants pant in white coton called a culotte Petit bateau. We boys had the same but cut more in V form which we wore with short pants. Girls commonly wore bloomer pants with dresses, but not when wearing smocks."

Regional Differences

There do not appear to have been significant differences between the styles and patterns of smocks worn but French boys in different regions of France. The styles of smocks bought in store and the patterns available from fashion magazines were the same in all regions of France. HBC is unsure, however, to what extent smocks were worn in Alsace-Loraine. These two northeaster provinces of France were ceded to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. As a result, when the Third Republic in 1871 mandated smocks in French schools, Alsace-Loraine were no longer part of France. These were both border provinces and there were already large numbers of German-speakers in both provinces, especially Alsace. I do not know to what extent the German authorities permitted French-language schools to operate. Some French families moved, but most of the French-speaking population remained. School smocks must have been much less common in these provinces than the rest of France, if they were worn at all. Presumably this difference continued even after the two provinces were united with France after World War I. The Germans regained Alsace-Loraine in 1940 and began a process of Germanizing the population with forced relocations and drafts in to the German military. France finally regained the provinces with the Allied victories in 1944.

Demographic Differences

While there do no appear to have been significant regional differences, there were demographic differences. French boys through the 1920s very commonly wore smocks. This included both boys in the city, small towns, and rural villages. This begab to change in the 1930s. Smocks contnued to be very commonly worn in rural villages. Many boys in city schools also wore smocks, but am increasing number began going to school without smocks. I'm not positive why this was. Did city mothers no longer think that smocks were needed. Or was it the boys who no longer wanted to wear them to school. City boys are of course more intuned and this probably explains why it was in Paris and the other cities that boys first stopped wearing smocks. Smocks did not totally disappear in the cities. Some schools required them, but most did not leaving it to the parents.

Utilization

French boys all wore school smocks when the French Goverment mandated them in 1871. Later most boys continued wearing them when the Government eased the requirement, although we do not yet know when this occurred. Some schools also required them. Gradually the chool smock became optional in most schools. It was up to a boys' parents, usually the mother, as to whether he wore a smock or not. Some mothers may have let the boy decide, but we think it was mostly the mother. Some boys would regularly wear their smocks. Other boys might wear smocks only on some days. Other boys never wore mocks.

Boys' Attitudes

While HBC has little information on what boys felt of wearing smocks before the 1940s, some information is available on the post-war era. One report suggests boys didn't mind smocks because they helped to protect their clothes. More reports, hoever, suggest that French boys generally didn't like wearing school smocks. Some boys complained that it was hard to get dressed in a smock, especially the back buttoning ones. Other boys just didn't like the look of a smock--it looked to much like a girls' dress. Even the idea of a smock was increasingly being seen as a little boy's or girl's garment because girls were continuing to wear smocks while fewer boys were wearing them. One French HBC visitor reported that he wore a smock to school until he was 14 years old, I detested wear the smocks. The other boys with few exceptions didn't have to, but I had a very strict mother. The others boys teased me about my smocks. He complained that the other boys taunted him, saying he looked like a girl in his smock.

Sizes

HBC is unsire as to just what size mothers brought smocks on. Some thrifty mothers bouught smocks in large sizes. As the smock was to cover a boys' clothes, presumably a large size that might last more than 1-year would be mlore acceptable that an actual garment bought in a large size. Hopefully French readers will provide us more information on how French mothers approached the question of sizing. This question is probably of greater importance concerning school smocks than regular smocks as older boys tended to wear school smocks. There are two ways in which school smocks were adjusted for growth. The most obvious was letting down the hem. Smocks were generally wore with short pants. The length of shorts changed over time as did the length of the smocks. The other way was letting down the sleeves.

Sommaire en Français

Un lecteur français nous a fourni un court sommaire écrit en français à propos de la philosophie sociale concernant les tabliers d'écoliers et des tendantes qui leurs étaient associées. A French reader has provided us a short summary in French of the the social philosophy behind the French school smocks and trends associated with the smock.

Influence

The French adotion of smocks for school children and the influence on boys wear in general influenced schoolwear in neighboring countries. The influence was especially strong in countries with French speaking populations.

Belgium

Belgian schools also adopted French-style school smocks, following the decission of the French Third Republic in the 1870s. Smocks were this widely worn in Belgium through the early 20th century. Belgian school smocks are very similar to French smocks. They also appear to have followed the same chronological trends. Early Belgian school smocks were long dark smocks just like French smocks. Belgian smocks in the post-World War II era also seem to be very similar to French smocks. A French reader writes, "The Belgian school tabliers were exatly the same as those found in France. The model (figure 1) was primarily for a boy (garçonnet) Notice the length, how it should be worn, and the typical pleats." HBC know of no significant difference between Belgian and French school smocks.

Canada

School smocks do not seem to have been widely worn in French Canada. We have noted them at what appear to have been cahrity institutions in Canada such as oprphanages. HBC has little information on Candian orphanages. We do note one Catholic orphange in Montreal where the boys were dressed in white smocks. Although the 1909-10 image is not very clearm it is apparent that the younger boys wear pinafore-like white smocks.

England

English schools never adopted smocks for schoolwear. A few nursery schools may have used them, but this was not common.

Germany

German schools never required smocks. Some younger German boys wore smocks to school during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but this was not common.

Italy

Italian school children coimmonly wore smocks to school. HBC is not sure to what extent this was influenced by France rather than a fashion which developed on its own in Italy. We note that Italian schoolboys much more commonly wore white smocks and floppy bows than French schoolboys.

Spain

Spanish school children also commonly wore smocks to school. HBC is not sure to what extent this was influenced by France rather than a fashion which developed on its own in Spain.

Switzeralnd

HBC has compiled extensive information on the smocks wore by Swiss boys in the French-speaking areas of the country. As far as boys clothing is concerned the french speaking part of Switzerland wascomparable to France. It was compulsory for boys to wear a smock until 9-10 in the years 1930-1960, about one third would then continue up to end of primary school around 12 years. Then in secondary school it was much less common, especially after about age 13-14 years. The fashion began to decline in the 1960s. Today in Switzerland boys no longer wear school smocks. Several different styles of smocks were worn in a variety of different colors and patterns. There were also a variety of pocket and belting arrangements.

School Portraits

We are not precisely sure how to interpret French school portraits. Some show many children wearing smocks while in others there may few or no children wearing smocks. We note for example all the children at a Catholic school wearing smocks in 1921. We do not note a uniform smock, any smock would apparently due. As the smock was a utilitarian protective garment, we wonder if some children did not take their smocks off fpr the photographs or perhaps not worn smocks on the day the school photographs were to be taken. A French reader tells us, "About the class photograph. Practicly on all photo the children are wearing their normal school clothes. It must be said that the children have to be clean and with correct garment to go in the school. The cleanlinless was included in the school program. When the pupil arrived at his school in the morming he must have reasonably clean clothes and be well groomed. After World War II at a lot of primery schools, the children had a compulsory shower every week. Also twice a week they drank a bottle of milk in their school (1946-55). At this time the children commonly changed garment each week, sometime even less. They changed their underclothes twice a week. They probably had to be encouraged to take the weekly shower at school. They also had Sunday clothes. Children did not come to school barefoot. It was not accepted in our culture."









HBC -- SU





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Created: January 3, 1998
Last updated: 7:07 PM 8/25/2010