English Smocks


Figure 1.--This painting by Helen Allingham shows a scene at Tennyson's home in the 1880s. The younger child in smocks is a boy. English children, bith boys and girls, in the 19th Century were often dressed in smocks for play and informal wear at home. Smocks for boys began to decline in popularity in the 1890s. Notice that all the children wore smocks.

Smocks appeared in England, France, and other European countries as a kind of work uniform, much as farmers use to wear overalls. HBC begins noting them in the early 19th century, but they may appeared earlier. Initially there was no association with childhood. I am not sure precisely when busy mothers realized they would also be practical garments for children, helping to keep their clothes clean. By the late 19th century, the smock appears to have evolved into a child's garment, although it was not unknown in shops. Unlike the Continent, the smock was never an important school garment, although pinafores were extensively worn by English school children. Home and school smocks for boys were never as popular in the English speaking countries as they proved to be on the Continent. They were, however, worn in England in the 19th Century, but declined in popularity in the 20th Century.

Style

Engish boys have generally worn back buttoning smocks. Here we are not quite sure about the smocks worn in rural areas during the early 19th century. We do not have back view images and many of these smocks look like they my hasve been pull-over garments rather than back-buttoning garments. This requires further investigation. The smocks worn by younger children in urban communities at home appear to be mostly back-buttoning smocks. This is primarily because during the period in which they were most commonly worn, back buttoning smocks were prevalent. Unfortunately we have very few 19th century images. Front buttoning smocks did not appear until the 1950s and by that time smocks were little worn by English boys. The smocks worn by English boys generally had plain collars. They were not generally worn with wide white collars and large floppy bows as was common in Italy.

Chronology

I am not sure when English mothers began dressing English boys in smocks. A variety of images show, however, that smocks and pinafores were worn by boys during much of the 19th Century, but declined in popularity during the late 19th Century. The fact that smocks were generally associated with agricutural labor and workmen in the early and mid-19th century probably discouraged many middle-class mothers from using smocks for their children. This began to change after the French Government mandated smocks for school children in the early 1870s. The fact that the British Government never adopted smocks as schoolwear probably was a factor explaining why smocks were never commonly worn by school-age boys in Britain.

Families

Families varied on how they used smoocks and this varied over time. We are just beginning to acquire information on these variations. We believe that smocks in the early 19th century may have been more of a style worn by the rural working-class. We know that agricultural workers wore smocks. We assume their sons did also. By the late 19th centuy, smpcks were less common in England. We note that thy were used in some families, more commonly affluent families. There were variations among families as to which children wore smocks

School Smocks

There are countless illustrations in children's books of English boys and girls wearing gayly colored smocks. Most of these illustrations beginning with Kate Greenaway appear highly imaginative. We simply have no evidence yet to confirm that boy commonly wore smocks to school in the late 18 and early 19th century. (Of course tht does not mean that they definitively did not.) We have noted boy at home wearing smocks during the late 19th and early 20th century--generally boys from affluent families. We know more about this period as there are many photographic school portraits. English schools for the most part, however, not require smocks. State schools did not require iunifoms. Boys rarely appear in these images wearing smocks. Private schools did require uniforms, but we know of very few schools that required older boys to wear smocks. A few private schools did use smocks for the pre-prep boys. This may have been realtively common in the 19th century. Even in the 20th century, however, smocks were work at some prep schools. They may have just been used at school, primarily for the younger boys. They may also have been used for especially messy activities like art. Some schools appear to have used them as the school uniform, but this was very rare. One choir school, St. Mary of the Angles Song School, used smocks as the everyday uniform. There is some indication that smocks were also used at a prep school in Eastboure, but our information here is limited.

Usage

HBC has noted a variety of uses in England for smocks. Many are adult usages. The most well known are the smocks widely worn by rural workers in the 19th century. They were also worn by factory workers, but less commonly. Shop girls also wore smocks and some still do as do butchers although others prefer aprons. We note that Morris dancers sometimes wear smocks, presumably a reflection of the smocks commonly worn in the English countryside during the 19th century. Smocks have been less commnly worn by children, especially boys. We note that some English children did wear smocks in the late 19th and early 20th century. We do not have extensive information but as described elsewhere on this page, it was usually pre-school or very young primary school children. Smocks were more commonly used for a child's paly clothes to protect his or her clothes. We believe that this was not uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th century, although there seem to have been class connotations.

Photographic Record

Collecting information, especially photographs, on smocks in England and other countries has proven complicated. This is because during the late 19th century, most photographs of the average family were formal studio portraits in which mothers usually dressed up their children. Amateur photography was not unknown before 1900, but the complications and cost resulted in a relatively small number od snapshots being taken. Very few mothers took their children to a photographic studio dressed in smocks, even though the children may have worn them at home. This changed in 1900 when George Eastman introduced the Kodak Brownie. Even so, snapshots inside the home were not common until ell into the 1930s or really after World War II. Thus drawings and illustrations have to be used rather than relying on photographs for the period before World War I. While useful, however, drawings are less definitive than actual photograhs

Personal Experiences

The The Allinghams: Smocks and pinafores in England during the 1880s

The Llewellyn-Davies Family: Smocks in the 1890s-1900s

French schools: A 1950s-60s boyhood

Related Links

Caution: This will exit you from Boys' Historical Clothing

Christopher Robin

Sources

Armes, Alice. English Smocks: With Directions for Making Them (Dryad Press, Leicester, England, 1980), 19 pages with many black & white illustrations. Covers the history of the smock garment, construction or "cut", colour, materials, decoration or embroidery. Includes many full-sized patterns for needlework decoration of smocks in pockets at inside front & back covers. Goes into stitches to use, and how to make a smock.

Hall, Maggie. Smocks: A Shire Publication (1979) album #46, 32 pages. History of the smock, smock-frock or slop as it was called, in England & Wales, 18th, 19th & 20th centuries. Well illustrated in black & white, beautiful needlework, intricate smocking & embroidery pictured.

Tarrant, Naomi. Smocks in the Buckuinghamshire Museum (The Buckinghamshire County Museum, Church Street, Aylesbury, 1976). 34 pgs, 22 are black & white illustrations. Closeups picture wonderful smocking & needlework embroidery on historic garments.







HBC





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Created: February 20, 1999
Spell checked: August 5, 1999
Last updated: 1:35 AM 9/12/2009