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School Smocks

school smocks
Figure 1.--French school boys commonly wore smocks to school until the 1960s. The traditional style appears to have been back buttoning. Most were black or dark blue so as to not show ink stains. Collars varied. Many of the smocks worn by these boys are collarless. Some have white collars, primarily Peter Pan collars. Two boys wear bows with their white collars.

School smocks are generally associated with Europe. Children on the Continent, both boys and girls, were commonly dressed in smocks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. French, Belgium, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and other school children commonly wore smocks to school instead of a school uniform during the first part of the 20th century. The Italian and Spanish influence introduced smocks to Argentine and Uruguayan school children as well as other Latin American countries. They are also sometimes seen in Middle Eastern schools.


The smock is a very utilitarian garment. There are a variety of reasons why they were adopted for schoolwear, from protecting clothes to improved discipline. Proponents say that it puts an end to thetyrany of fashion and helps to minimaize social inequality. It also helps to maintain disciplime in the school. A French source listed the following reasons why school children should wear smocks. While this is a French view, it probably is not greatly different from how parents in many other European countries may view smocks.


We are not sure when boys first began wearing smocks to school. France is the first country we know of to have introduced on a nationl basis, doing so as part of republican reforms in the early 1870s. The precise chronology hs varied widely from country to country with smock usage particularly notably in France and Italy. Many other countries alo introduced mocks. After World War II (1939-45) smocks declind in many countries. They are, howver, still used in several different countries. They are used in many more countries for very young children and in even more countries as protecive wear--especially for art class. One New Zealand school in 2002, for example advised parents, "There are larger red smocks available in the Swap Shop. These smocks are extra large size: longer and larger than the normal large size. I would recommend that parents of Year Six boys buy them an extra large size. Recently boys in Year Six, who are quite tall now, have got paint on their shorts because their smocks are too short."

school smock
Figure 2.--After decades of wearing school smocks, by the 1960s school smocks were becoming increasingly rare, worn mostly by girls and younger boys.

Simple Uniform

The smock was a simple way of introducing uniforms with out a complicated set of clothes, only a single smock. Smocks were worn in many countries that have not required that school children wear uniforms and today still do not require them. School smocks may have been introduced by government or school officials for some of the reasons often associated with uniforms, primarily to make all students equal. They apparently proved popular with many mothers for mor practical reasons. The early smocks were a dark color, often black or dark blue. In the days before ball point pens, boys often had to wrestle with ink wells and pens. The inevitable accidents could be disastrous for clothes and children usually wore some of their best clothes to school. As a result, the school smock proved very effective in protecting clothes. Interestingly, beginning about the 1930s in France, school smocks began to be much more diverse, so that French children wearing smocks were often dressed very differently--hardly the uniform look originally conceived.


HBC has at this time very little information concerning the origins of the school smock. The garment itself predates by many decades its use by children for school. The smock was widely used by workers, especially rural workers to protect their clothes which in the 17th and 18th century were more expensive in realtive terms than is the case today. As far as HBC is aware the first state action to require smocks was the new French Third Republic adaopting them in the early 1870s as schoolwear, primaruly to democratize public education. HBC believes that the protective benefits of a smock were a secondary consideration. HBC does not know if smocks were commonly worn before they were adopted by the French Government for schoolwear. HBC believes that the wearing of smocks in other European countries has priarily evolved frfom the common usage in France. HBC does not, however, have details on either the decission making process in France which led to the French adoption. Was there a public debate? Has anyone ever described the Governmental process whuch led to the adoption? Was there any kind of commission which studied the issue and came up with suggestions such as age, school level, style, color, and other factors. Or pderhaps it was a edict which resulted from a single or small group of officials with little public debate. The authors also have not information on the spread of the French school smock to other countries. In this regard it is especially important to understand Italian school smocks Italy was the other major countries where the smock was widely worn. Curiously, France was not popular in Italy in the 1870s. The French Government under Napoleon III had tried to precent the unification of Italy in the 1860s and even intervened militarily to prevent it. Rather strange that the Italians would adopt a seemingly French schoolwear style.


A French source provides the following suggestions about school smocks. The suggestions are a good reflection on how many viewed the school smock, although the suggestion that teenage boys should wear them seems rather unreasonable. Even when they were commonly worn in France they were not commonly worn by teenage boys. I'm less sure about teenage girls.

French school smocks
Figure 3.--After World War II, French boys still wore smocks, but at many schools like this primary school it was optional. This primary boy, for example, wears a smock with side buttons. It appears to have been left to the mother's discretion.


Smocks come in different colors and styles. The smocks worn in the early 20th century were generally black or dark blue. Currently smocks are less common and there is a great deal of diversity. Some schools often have different colors such as blue and pink for the boys and girls. Some smocks come in checked gingham patterns. In other instances the children all wear the same color such as white. Early smocks come with plain collars, or in many cases no collars at all. After the turn of the century, smocks with white collars appeared--of varying sizes. Some boys wore smocks, especially in Italy and to a lesser extent France, with wide white collars. Some smocks were worn with large bows, especially in Italy. Smocks come both in front, side, and back fitting styles. The late 19th and early 20th century smocks appear to have been mostly back fastening. The patten now varies from school to school, but often boys' smocks were front buttoning while girls' smocks were back buttoning, but this is only a general rule. The style of white, front buttoning lab coats in becoming increasingly popular.


School smocks were made of several differemt materials. Wool and cotton are the most common. After World War II rayon and rayon blended fabrics also appeared.

Regional Trends

HBC notes that the school smock is primarily a Mediteranean or southern European style. It was most commonly worn in countries along the southern tier of Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, French, and Greece and the North African-Middle Eastern (Morocco west to Turkey) countries. The only northern Eyropean countries to adopt school smocks are those countries with French linguistic ties (Belgium and France). HBC at this time has no idea why the school smock was a seemingly Mediterean style. The only reason that springs to mind is that France and French cultural influence was more imprtant in southern Europe than nothern Europe. Hopefully our European readers will provide some insights here.

National Differences

It is interesting to speculate as to why school smocks became so commonly worn in some countries (France and Italy) and were little worn in other countries (America and England). I'm not sure about Germany, but don't believe smocks were widely worn there. One thought that occurs to me is the late development of state schools in England. Several European countries such as France developed a free state school system before the British. At mid-19th century there were few state-sponsored schools in England. Affluent children were sent to private Public schools or the emerging preparatory schools. As smocks at the time were considered working-class attire, they may not have been deemed appropriate for young English gentlemen. (At mid-century it was primarily the boys who were sent to school.) Free state-sponsored schools became increasingly common on the continent by the mid-19th century. This meant that a free education was available to boys of very modest means. (Again it was primarily boys who were educated, but increasing numbers of girls attended school after mid-century.) Many of these children may have commonly worn smocks and naturally wore them to school. Educational authorities may have decided on smocks because many of the children already wore them, they were practical garments, and they helped to hide differences in clothing as the children came from families of widely different circumstances. The Catholic church may have also played a role, as the countries where school smocks appear most common are Catholic countries (France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, etc.).

school smocks
Figure 4.--French boys, like the ones in this 1962 ad, might wear long pants with jacket-like front buttoning smocks, but little boys still wore back-buttoning smocks with short pants. Note the checked pattern and Peter Pan collar.

Country Trends

Styles of school smocks and policies for wearing them have varied from country to country. The school smock which was once common in several countries has disappeared except for very young children in most countries. The traditional back buttoning smock in particular is now rarely worn in most countries--especially by boys. Argentine children wear white smocks, although private schools may have colored smocks. Smocks styles and usage in Belgium generally followed the pattern in France. Smocks were very commonly worn by Belgian school children. Bolivia is one of the Latin American countries where school children wear smocks, but it may be just the girls. English schools did, for the most part, not require smocks. A few private schools did use smocks for the pre-prep boys. The classic schoolboy dress in France is the beret and smocks. Most French schoolboys by the turn of the century were outfitted in smocks, originally back-buttoning smocks. French boys trudging to school with their smocks and school satchels (book bags), as French schools requited extensive home work, is a common image in France. Italian schoolboys in the 20th century also commonly wore smocks. The Italian boys generally wore dark-colored smocks with large white collars and floppy bows. Japanese school boys do not wear smocks. Younger boys and girls in kindergarden and day care, however, do often wear smocks. Younger Palestinian boys and girls wear school smocks. The ones I saw were gingham. They were mostly worn with long pants. School smocks are worn in many other Arab countries from Syria to Morocco. ortuguese children at private schools, both boys and girls, in 2000 still commnly wear school smocks. HBC believes that children in public school formerly also wore smocks, but in 2000 they are only commonly worn at private schools. Boys commonly wear them to about 10 years of age, but some schools use them for boys up to about 12 years. Colors vary with each school having destinctive colors. Spanish school children were commonly wearing smocks by the 1930s, although I am not sure when this paractice first began. Young kindergarten age children still commonly wear smocks in Spain. Turkey has a similar school uniform smock for elementary children, both boys and girls. I'm not sure just when this style was first implemented, but I believe it continues to be worn today. American schools have, for the most part, not required smocks. A few private schools did use smocks for the pre-school children, mostly in the 1920s and 30s. Uruguayan children, both boys and girls, mostly wear white smocks toschool. This is a national standard set by the Government for all state primary schools.


Some mothers purchased smocks in large aizes so that their children could wear them for a long period of time. This was especially true of school smocks because usually older boys wore school smocks than normally wore them at home. This mean that as the child became older, the smock became shorter. Many smocks came with a substantial hem that could be let down. Also smocks were commonly handed down to a younger sibling as the child grew older.

Domestic Details

Boys wearing smocks, by necesity would almost have to have more than one. Most boys had two smocks, just to allow washing/ironing of one when the other was actually being worn. The rotation was usually weekly as until the 1950s, wash was usually done weekly. Monday was often the was day in America and I think some European countries. The number of smocks a boy might have really depended of how whealthy the family was. Affluent families might have a rather extensive wardrobe of 5 or 6 smocks for a boy. That would mean 1 or 2 in the washing process, and the others for variously school, playing, sunday best clothing. Middle income families might have up to 3 smocks for a boy: 1 in washing, 1 in use, 1 as reserve or sunday best. Families with limited resources would mostly have 2 smocks for their boy: the first brand new for school, the second would be previous year smock now used for playing or as reserve. HBC also notes that in reference to these basic domestic details, economic factors were not the only variables. Other important factors were social class, nationality, and chronological trends.


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Created: October 23, 1998
Last updated: 11:15 AM 8/14/2022