Smocks and Smock Frock Origins

The smock did not originate as a child's garment or as an outer garment. It was from the beginning, however, a protective garment. The smock is actually the most basic of all undergarments and the one with the longest history. The word ‘smock’ is an old English word for a shift or chemise, hence the word ‘smocking’ came to be applied to the ornamental gathering of the necks of these garments. The earliest smocks were simple shirt-like garments and came into being in Anglo-Saxon times. Many European countries also used smocking on their garments.The words smock, shirt, shift, and chemise all refer to the same garment except that shirt appears to refer to a man's garment, smock and shift a woman's, and chemise, a French woman's. The purpose of these is all the same: to protect the rich fabrics of the upper garments from body oil and perspiration. We know from existing garments that men's and women's shirts and smocks were cut and decorated almost identically. Several different types of smocks are round frocks developed over time.

Elizabethen Under Garments

Men's and women's shirts and smocks were cut and decorated almost identically.Both were made from the width of the fabric (period fabric was usually about 22 inches wide) for the body but whereas men's shirts have straight side seams, women's smocks are widened by gores from just above the waist downward allowing for the extra width of a woman's hips. If the fabric was very wide, sometimes the extra width was cut in one with the body.

Lines of embroidery and other decoration follow the same patterns of shirts and smocks. This is not surprising since items made of linen (shirts, smocks, partletts, ruffs, etc.) were made almost exclusively by women. The shape of the garments being similar, embroidery patterns would easily translate from smock to shirt. The similarity between the smock and shirt was satirized by Ben Jonson in "Every Man in His Humour" (1601) when a woman loans her husband one of her smocks to wear while she is washing his shirt. [JanevAshelford, Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I (New York: Holmes & Meier, nd), p. 13.] In addition to day wear, smocks were also worn at night to sleep in. Accounts of the wardrobes of Queen Elizabeth I tell of "nightgowns" but no detailed description is made and none have survived. It is certain that less wealthy folk slept in the sam e garment they would have worn during the day. Smocks were made from all weights of linen, from fine to heavy. Some were embroidered all over, while others were plain. In the first third of the 16th century, smocks were made with a low square or curved neckline that would extend about 2.5 centime ters past the neck of the gown. From about the 1530's onward, the neckline was filled in either with a high-necked smock or a partlett (in most portraits it is virtually impossible to tell the difference). This high-necked style rose even higher with a frill on the neckband. Eventually this frill became so large that it developed into a separate ruff. Some smocks have flat collars that can turn down over the collar of a doublet or be starched to stand up, framing the face. These collars are often edge d with lace.

18th and Early 19th Century Work Garment

They gradually developed into a fuller garment with much more room to move while working. The fullness was gathered in tubes or reeds at both back and front. These garments, known as ‘smock frocks’, were worn in England by the shepherds, carters and wagoners in the 1700s. Not much is recorded of the wearing apparel of the working class up to this period but occasionally in paintings of rural life one can see them. This was a common attire for farmers and working men. The original farm/factory worker smock was a button less garment which simply pulled on over the head. It was a loose garment, often with a wide collar that the common workman's handkerchief (now often called a bandanna) filled in when wrapped around the neck. (The wide collar worn by children was not a feature of the early smocks. It was a fashion element later employed in many children's smocks.) Smocks were very commonly worn by English farm workers and not uncommon among factory workers. Americans of English decent may well have worn the smock. I am not sure how common they were on the Continent for farmers, but believe French peasant farmers also commonly wore smocks. One source reports circa 1830-50, excellent condition, homespun shepherds smocks with smocked fronts, gussetted sleeves, most of them with embroidered initials.

Most smocks were made from a rough homespun and home woven linen or wool. They were quite heavy and provided extra warmth for the wearers while protecting their everyday clothes. The cut of these garments was simple and the basic sections were squares or rectangles. There were three styles - the Round Smock (Frock), the Shirt Smock and the Coat Smock.

Types of Smock Garments

Round Smocks

The round smocl as worn by the girls of Woodend School is considered to be the most traditional. It usually has a peter-pan collar and a generous neck opening either front or back. This made it very easy to slip on. There was smocking at the centre back, front, upper sleeves and wrist. The round frocks were reversible and were not washed until both sides were dirty. They were mostly knee length or shorter. In Chapter 1 of ‘Rosamund’s tuckshop’ we meet Rhoda Kane and Sonia Raymond at lunch when they are discussing the uniform they are to wear at Woodend school, which was just opening as an annex to the Cliffend School at Brighton. "We’re to wear uniform ... Khaki breeches like those the land girls had during the war, and smocks."

Elsie gives a good description of them in Chapter 5 of ‘Rosamund’s Tuckshop’ ... "the new gardening mistress, coming from a survey of the grounds, was dressed in the same uniform that Daffodil had been wearing; khaki breeches, smocked yellow tunic to match, long boots, and soft khaki hat, with a glimpse of red hair beneath." In Chapter 2 of ‘Rosamund’s Castle’ we meet Benedicta when she finally gets to school after her accident. She has just arrived and has arrayed herself in her new outfit for the first time. "She wore yellow breeches and long brown boots, a yellow smock hanging almost to her knees, and a soft slouch hat to match ... She stood gazing dreamily down at the beautiful lawn, where girls in yellow smocks where working in groups under the trees."

Later in ‘New girls at Woodend’ Chapter 5 we meet Jean-Ann when she arrives at school wearing her working outfit. " .. The stranger wore the khaki breeches and lose smock, the soft hat and the long boots, which were the gardening outfit of Woodend." In Chapter 8 Miss Rainey tells the new juniors "They are Sussex round-frocks, made on the pattern of the working clothes of old Sussex shepherds, up on the hills. Smocked across the chest and fastening at the back, they are exactly like the shepherds’ smocks ... You should feel it is an honour to wear traditional garments."

Shirt smocks

Shirt smocks are thus named because they are similar to a nobleman’s shirt and have a short opening at the front. They are usually shorter than round frocks

Coat smocks

Coat smocks were worn mainly by the Welsh shepherds. They were buttoned at the front and had a large cape-like collar to protect the wearer from the wet and misty conditions in Wales. They were knee length or longer and usually made of wool. The gathering on the smocks began to be embroidered. It is not known why but perhaps the fullness of the coarse material blousing out from the neckline was uncomfortable. Smocking or embroidery held the gathers close to the chest. By the end of the 1700s the gathers were embroidered by a strong linen thread the colour of the smock, and the embroidery varied from area to area. Mostly natural colours from cream to dark brown, the type of embroidery indicated the wearer’s occupation. Leaves and trees for a woodsman, crooks and sheep for a shepherd, crosses for a gravedigger. Feather stitch was the most common.

Fashion Trends

The tradition of wearing a smock declined by the early 1800s and it was rare to see them being worn after mid-century. It was about them that smocking became a fashion statement on tea gowns, children’s wear and nightdresses. When lawn tennis became popular in the 1800s, bodices were smocked with silk and caught at the waist by a sash. Today once more mocking is very popular on babies’ and children’s wear.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: September 18, 2000
Last updated: September 18, 2000