French School Smocks: The 1910s

Unlike England where HBC contributors have provided elaborate details on their boyhood clothes and school uniforms. Contributions from France have been much more limited. One HBC contributor has provided a fascinating account from her father who grew up in France:

I happened across your web site about the history of boys' clothing and found it quite interesting. My father (now deceased) went to school in France in the early part of this century. When I was a teenager, my sisters and I found his old school clothing in a trunk in the storage room.


Father's school clothing was a heavy hooded woolen cape and a black "tablier" (school smock). It was a boy's smock, and boys always wore dark colors.

Our Surprise

Needless to say, as young Americans we were amazed that our father had worn a "dress" to school. He soon put us straight, however, and explained to us the practicality of the fashion, which he felt was as boyish as blue jeans. You might find his comments interesting, so I'm summarizing them as I remember them.


My father was born in France and started school there. He went to school there from 1912-14. He came to the United States just before the start of World War I. He was 5 or 6 years old when he started school and about years when he emigrated to America.

He lived in Paris. He definitely went to a city school. I'm not sure what kind of school father went to. I assume it was a Catholic school. I know his family were devout Catholics, and he sent us to a Catholic school when we were growing up.

I do not know if the smock was required. I assume the school required it, because he said it was his "school uniform." But I think even the children in state-run schools wore them in those days.

Why did my grandparents come to the U.S.? My grandfather actually grew up in Cairo, Egypt, where his father was an administrator for the Suez Canal company. [Information on the family of French promoter resonsible for the Suez Canal is available on the biography pages: Delesseps family.] I believe he came to California partly because of the promise of warmer winters than France offered. (There was a sizable late-19th and early-20th century group of French expatriates living in the San Francisco bay area. The French church in San Francisco, Notre Dame des Victoires, which my grandparents attended, was founded in 1852, and the Bush Street area near where Chinatown is now located was once called Frenchmen's Hill, I'm told.)

Parents View of Smocks

From the parents' point of view, the tablier, when worn with short trousers, is not as quickly outgrown as an ordinary shirt and long trousers are. The full pleating of the traditional tablier, including long, loose sleeves gathered into a wristband, allows for quite a bit of growth. The shoulder width and the overall length of the garment are the two things that determine size.

A boy can be outfitted in a tablier that is a bit big and still look just fine, with the addition of a belt to gather the garment to him ("like a Russian soldier") and fitted cuffs to hold the sleeves up. As he grows, the knee-length smock shortens a bit, the sleeves are less baggy, but the garment still fits until his neck and shoulders get too big for it. Similarly, the short pants can be bought knee-length and still look nice as they get progressively shorter, which is not true of long pants. Parents buying school clothes in "the old days" could be reasonably sure that the clothes would fit for several years.

Boys' Views of Smocks

The traditional French school outfit gave the students a sense of solidarity, a feeling that they belonged to a group, even with boys from other schools. All French schoolboys dressed alike, everywhere, and all were instantly recognizable to other boys--even from a considerable distance.

There was a certain freedom in wearing a garment that was allowed to get dirty in impromptu games, rough-housing and other boyish behavior. At the end of the day, your shirt was still clean, although your school smock had been through a dozen or so exciting adventures. Your mother might shake her head as she looked you over, but you knew she wasn't truly upset. That's what the smock was for--a buffer zone between your "real clothes" and the boy-world of active play. (I should point out that most of the laundry was done by hand during my father's boyhood.)

As for the back buttons on the tablier, we were told that this allowed the smock to cover the boy more completely in the front, where most of the damage from his adventures was likely to occur. Getting in and out of the loose-fitting pleated garment wasn't a real problem, because a boy only needed to undo enough buttons to allow his head to slide through when he pulled it off (over his head).

I think to my father the tablier symbolized a time when he was free to explore his world unencumbered by adult responsibilities. Putting it aside meant that he had crossed a boundary into the grown-up world.


Father wore his smock for "knocking around" (digging in the garden, feeding the chickens, etc.) in America, and I assume he wore it for similar functions in France, as well as for play with other boys, from his descriptions of his adventures. I believe he originally had at least two or three smocks in his wardrobe, but only one of them survived to be packed away for his children to find.


Father still wore his French school clothes for at-home play and doing his chores when he came to the United States, although he dressed "like an American" for school. He only stopped wearing his French clothes when he outgrew them.

Fashion Changes

According to what I've heard from French people I know, the school reforms of the late sixties and early seventies put the final nails in the coffin. I don't know the exact date when the government changed the policies officially, but the real change was probably brought about not only by social reform, but also by the advent of modern laundry equipment in the average French household. When you have an automatic washer and dryer, you don't need to ration clean clothes.

Best wishes, Marilyn M. Pickens

Additional Information

Related Links: Careful this will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but both sites are highly recommended

Apertures Press International Project: Pictures at schools in different countries and a book on British schools

Apertures Press New Zealand book: New book on New Zealand schools in progress

School Uniform Web SiteInformative review of British school uniforms with some excellent photographs

Boys' Preparatory Schools: A lovely photographic essay on British Preparatory Schools during the 1980s with over 200 color and black and white photographs.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: October 14, 1999
Last updated: October 15, 1999