Smocks and Smock Frocks

Figure 1.--I believe this is a French boy in his school smock sometime around 1910. French school smocks do not seem to have been worn with wide white collars.

Smocks are a loose, lightweight over garment worn to protect the clothing while working. Initially the smock was a garment for adult workers, especially farm workers. Eventually mothers faced with the need of protecting expensive garments from the hard wear associated with children began dressing their children in smocks. The smock by the late 19th century had become primarily a child's garment, although it was also worn by shop workers, artists, and other adults. The smock was essentially a large shirt or overgarment with the fullness controlled by the smocking (embroidery on pleats). The use of smocking (the decorative embroidery can be easily traced to the 15th century). Albrecht Durer's Self Portrait (German) shows a smocked shirt, and the Mona Lisa (Italian) has a smocked chemise. The use of needlework to control fullness is a very old technique and became known as smocking. Smocking needle work continues today and is a popular addition to fancy collars as well as garments for younger children.

Definition and Terminology

A smock is generally defined as a loose over-garment, especially one worn to protect the clothing worn under the smock. They are especially associated with protecting children's clothing at school and at play and adult's clothing at work. The smocks worn by European farm laborers in the 19th century were sometimes referred to as a smock frock. Smocks are sometimes difficult to differentiate from two related garments, dresses and pinafores. The primary difference with a dress is that smocks are worn to protect other garments worn under the smock. This is not the case of a dress. Smocks are differentiated from pinafores in that they have both backs and sleeves. The pinafore is more of an apron-like garment, often without a back or sleeves. Even so, in some languages the word apron is used for smock. We have begun to collect the various foreign language terms for smocks.


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 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.


A child (both boys and girls) may also have worn them, especially in rural areas. Since they were often worn by adult males, after breeching, a rural boy might have worn one. They were not considered in the 18th century to be specifically children's clothes as specialized clothing for children did not commonly appear until the latter part of the century. A boy wearing a smock in the 18th century would be wearing essentially adult fashions. I do not have definitive information on the smock became standard children's clothes. It presumably occurred as smocks became less commonly worn by farm workers, although artists continued to wear them. This would mean that smocks became accepted children's wear after the second half of the 19th century. Perhaps the smock's association with workmen at first discouraged many status conscious parents from adopting it as children's wear. Here photograhic images are rare because children did not normally wear smocks for a photographic portrait.


The smock comes in a variety of styles. One of the major stylistic features is the fullness of the smock. This is in part determined by the height of the waistkine. Some smocks are very full while others are more narrow, form fitting garments. The fullness can controlled pleating at the front. The use of needlework to control fullness is a very old technique. This area of the smock can be decorated by embroidery. As it was particularly common on smocks, this decorative embroidery has become known as smocking. The use of smocking (the decorative embroidery can be easily traced to the 15th century). Albrecht Durer's Self Portrait (German) shows a smocked shirt, and the Mona Lisa (Italian) has a smocked chemise. Smocking needle work continues today and is a popular addition to fancy collars as well as garments for younger children. I am a little confused about the term smocked collar. As best I can dertermine the terms derives from the smocking, or sectioning gathered fabric, used to control the fulness of a smock. Some smocks with this smocking had decorative embroidery. The socked collar does not have the gathered fabrric, but often does have the embroidery. They are used in dressy outfits for younger children.

Figure 2.--French boys until the 1960s commonly wore smocks to school. Many schools through the 1930s required them. By the 1940s they were optional, but many mothers insisted on them.

School Smocks

Some European schools began requiring the children to wear smocks. This was primarily a measure to reduce class distinctions. Smocks were most popular in Mediterranean countries. France introduced them in the 1870s, but I do not yet have information on other countries. It is interesting to speculate why school smocks became so common on the Continent (France and Italy), but were little worn in England. I attempt to address this on the school smock page. I have little information about schools requiring smocks on a country wide basis. I know France required them. I have no information on other countries, but they may have been requited in Iyaly as well. Almost certainly individual schools in other countries required them because of the uniformity of dress in some images. The smock is most associated with French and Italian school boys. They were, however, adopted by schools in many other countries. They appear to have been widely worn in Belgium as fashions there are strongly liked to France because of the common language. Spanish boys also wore school smocks. They were introduced in Latin America (especially Argentina and Uruguay)--probably because of the Italian influence. Some Middle Eastern countries introduced smocks. Turkish school boys apparently wore them with Eton collars. Palestinian children wore smocks to school almost always with long pants.

Figure 3.--These brothers and sisters in the late 19th century were all dressed in identical smocks. Note the smocking at the front.

Home Wear

Smocks appear to have been well adopted by many parents in the late 19th century for home wear. The same characteristics that made the smock suitable wear for working men (it protected their clothes) made it a particularly appropriate child's garment, as children--especially boys-- are so rough on their clothes. The value was especially true unti well after the turn of the century for two reasons One, clothes were much more expensive in real terms than is the case today. Two, washing clothes was a much more difficult, labor intensive undertaking than is the case today. Thus there was good reason for children to wear protective garments. Smocks became widely used by European and American mothers to protect the often elaborate and expensive clothing of their children. Before the turn of the Century when children's clothes became simpler, the smock was very useful to protect those clothes. Smocks were commonly worn in the nursery or for play outdoors. Some mothers may have even used smocks as primary outfits rather than a outer garment to protect clothing. The photographic record may be somewhat misleading. Until the 1890s, most photographs were portraits taken in studios. Parents would be likely to outfit the children in their Sunday best party suits rather than daily nursery wear like smocks.


Smock are most associated with younger boys. This has, however, varied greatly over time and from country to country. We have noted younger teenage boys wearing smocks in French schools during the early 20th century. The same was probably true in other countries such as Italy, Portugal, and Soain, although we have less informnationa t this time. We have also noticed older boys wearing smocks in orphanges and work houses. Some European parents also had school age boys wear smocks at home. In other countries such as America they were generally worn by yonger boys. Today theu have disapperaed in some countries, but widely worn by elementary age school children in several countries.


An offshoot of the smock was the pinafore, a garment which protected, but not completely cover the clothes. Pinafores were worn by small boys, but were primarily worn by girls. Girls well into the 20th Century would wear "pinnies" to protect their clothes. The same factors that made smocks such a useful garment, the cost of clothing and the work load of washing day, also made the onafore a very useful garment.


Boys in the 19th Century and early 20th Century also wore smock-like tunics of various styles. One collection of Victorian nursery rimes describes English boys in smocks:


The first of Eleanor Farjeon's London nursery rhymes appeared anonymously in Punch in 1916 and were an immediate success. They recalled a London of long lost innocence and simple pleasures, of little villages and boys and girls in linen smocks. It may never have existed, but it was a London that Londoners took to their hearts. This is a facsimile of the complete edition published in 1938, containing all 106 rhymes and illustrated by Macdonald Gill.

Girls' Smocks

Smocks were worn by boys and girls. Some boys and girls wore identical styles of smocks. During the 19th century I am not sure that there were specific smock styles or boys and girls. After World War I we begin to note specialized styles for boys and girls. Some styles could be worn by both, but specialized styles become more common. This was more common in countries like France where smocks were more commonly worn. One of the important indicators is a bo in the back. Belts are another factor. Many available images are front portraits. We ar not sure at this time how to interpret these images. Analysis is further complicated by country differences. Because we focus primarily on boys' clothing, we hav not addressed girls' styles in detail. Ye t this is ofsome importance so that we can attempt to determine gender in unidentified images.

Figure 4.--Mrs. Cocroft of Staten Island in 1886 carefully dressed her nine children and picturesquely arranged them in a sumac tree. Note all the children, except the oldest girls, are outfitted in white smocks--including all the boys.

Coed Style

Unlike many clothing items such as sailor suits, kilts, Fauntleroy suits, etc. do not appear to have been made specifically for boys. Rather they were generic children's clothes, but primarily used for girls. There were many styles of smocks, involving color, buttoning (side, front, or back), embellishments, collars, pockets, trim, belts, ties, etc. Some mothers bought identical smocks for all their children. Some styles seemed to have been preferred by boys and girls. By the 1950s styles specifically for boys or girls evolved in many countries. Mothers in the 19th Century had much more latitude on how they dressed their children. Wealthy families often schooled children at home which meant they could dress them as they liked. Mothers with large families might dress all of them, sons and daughters alike, in smocks. Charming photos exist of large families of boys and girls from babyhood to 12 or 13 years dressed in smock frocks. Some mothers would insist on dressing their sons and daughters, in matching smocks. Other mothers might purchase slightly less elaborate smocks for their sons, especially the older boys. Smocks for boys, for example, might have less lace and smocking or other applique. In all cases the smocks buttoned or tied at the back or pulled over the head like a frock. Generally by the time a boy reached 5 or 6, he would be dressed in more boyish clothes, such as kilts or Buster Brown suits. Some boys as old as 10 or 12, however, are known to have been kept in smocks by meticulous mothers. Often mothers opting for smocks would use them for every day wear or play to save wear and tear on their best suits.

Figure 5.--Some smocks in the late 19th and early 20th century were worn quite long. Most were back buttoning.

Country Differences

Smocks were particularly popular on the Continent. Children in several countries wore smocks--mostly at school. Countries that required smocks for school wear, such as France and Italy, greatly expamded the usage of smocks. Boys in several countries wore school smocks. Boy also wore smocks at home, but this was more variable. Many mothers saw them as useful garments to prtect clothes. Country practices varried widely. In England, they were mostly worn by younger boys before they went off to preparatory boarding school. In France, older boys might wear them. In Germany, they do not seerm to have been very popular. Social class factors were involved. In America, they were more common in affluent families than in working class families. Much was up to the preferences of individual mothers.

Children's Literature

Smocking and smocks can be seen in many illustrations for children's literature. This is especially true of late 19th and early 20th century books. There are many such illustrators whonwere noted for their illustrations of children in smocks, although because of the size of the illustrations, the smocking does not always show in detail in the illustrations. The most famous illustration is of course Kate Greenaway. There were many others. Some of the illustrators included Cicely Mary Barker, Henriette Willebeek Le Mair, and Blanche Fisher Wright. These illustrators loved to depict children romping inocently in smocks. They projected an innocent, nostalgic image of "old fashioned" country of late 18th early 19th century English country life. The idealized scenes projected perhaps never actully were, but it is what the public wanted to imagine--simpler, innocent times. that people wanted to pretend existed. And what could be more innicent than little boy and girls in smocks and other gayly colored garment dancing around the may pole or romping in the country.

Difficult Images

We have note some images that we find difficult to identify in any meaninful way. Hopefully HBC readers will be able to provide some guidance.

Personal Experiences

HBC pages

Only a few personal accounts are available concerning boys who wore smocks as children, most are European accounts.

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

The Cocrofts: Smocks and pinafores in America during the 1886

The Renoirs: France in the 1890s

Field Marshal Alexander: Alexander and his brothers as boys growing up in Ulster apparently wore smocks and tams

The Llewllyn-Davies: Smocks and berets in England during the 1890s-1900s

Christian Darnton: England in the 1900s

Christopher Milne: England in the 1920s

French schools: A 1950s-60s boyhood

Swiss smocks: Swiss French boy during the 1940s-60s

External pages

Caution, this will exit you from Boys' Historical Clothing

Christopher Robin


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Created: February 20, 1999
Spell checked: August 2, 1999
Last updated: September 27, 2003