The Realism of George Clausen

George Clausen (1852-1944) was an English painter who studied in London and Paris, influenced there by the naturalistic school of artists, particularly Jules Bastien-Lepage.   In the late nineteenth-century, he completed a body of work depicting English rural workers.

Clausen sketched on the spot and supported his portrayal by using photographs, catching people going about their work. He was one of the first to depict real workers, albeit in a somewhat heroic and idealised light. Reviewers of his paintings still read into his depictions ‘characteristics’ of the ‘peasantry’, one man wearing a smock frock said to represent ‘fatuous stupidity’ for a reviewer of his work shown at the Dudley Gallery.  Clausen practised this naturalism from the 1880s, providing a literal representation of the subject, presenting labourers in their particular environment, demoting any narrative in favour of true representation, documenting the authentic scene with no thought of the picturesque.  The smocks that he depicted rural labourers wearing were workwear, often short, and much plainer than the smock of popular imagination.  The man cutting mangolds in a field [see Winter Work, 1883-4, Tate Gallery, ] has a plain smock on, tied at the waist for practicalities sake, the flash of his red neckerchief alleviating the khaki tones of the scene.  Clausen painted the people that he saw around his home at Childwick Green, Hertfordshire, taking an impartial view of their lives. 

However, his focus on everyday life reflected his anti-elitist sympathies, his work part of the New English Art Club formed from 1886, which aimed to create a large exhibition where all artists could vote unlike the elite Royal Academy. [1]  Sharpley Bainbridge, a manufacturer of ready-made clothing from Lincoln was a patron of Clausen and also owned fifty paintings by Birket Foster, known for rural landscapes.  Such male entrepeneurs were the agents of change transforming the countryside, yet displayed images of that disappearing world on their walls and in their galleries.  These rural depictions were part of urban life, the demand for prints of such images coming from city dwellers. In general, they offered a salve to the pressures of modernity with representations of timelessness and tranquillity and the hope of a natural life to restore the spirits.  Then, as today, they were a fantasy, those who had to make their living from the land unlikely to see this narrative. Rural counties around London became the centre for this artistic endeavour, with rural objectification helped by the railway which linked villages to London with ease. 

By the early twentieth century, Clausen’s original realist depictions had become a national archetype of healthy outdoor labour, aspirational for all, whether living in the town or countryside.  Clausen himself, a war artist during the First World War, seemed to drift away from such representations, his later landscapes often figureless. 

[1] K. McConkey, Sir George Clausen, R.A., 1852-1944 (Exhibition Catalogue, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums and Tyne and Wear County Council Museums, Bradford and Tyne and Wear, 1980), pp. 11, 31-2 .

See also:

A Fishy Tale…

As I have noted in my previous blog about milkmen [], the white smock frock was a useful overall for those involved in food production and food selling, being washable and durable as well as suggesting cleanliness and hygiene.  It frequently turns up in sources dealing with the fish trade.  Of course, the maritime smock, worn by sailors and fishermen, which was plainer and shorter than the traditional smock frock, may have influenced this. [see illustration below, James Clarke Hook, Crabbers, 1876]  However, those involved in the fish trade seemed to favour a hybrid garment, somewhere in between the two versions.


(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Joshua Cristall depicted the Fish Market on Hastings Beach in 1808, with long white plain smocks visible on several men at a time when smocks in general were not so embellished.  [see illustration below, V&A collection]  Indeed, when Joseph Foster died in 1909 in Hastings, it was noted that he had worn a white smock frock at his stall in the Fish Market in the Old Town,[1] so this was seemingly a tradition for some fish sellers there during the nineteenth century.


They also seem to have been worn by those in the London fish trade.  In a description of Billingsgate Fish Market in 1872, those who carried the fish from the transport to the auctioneers were described as clad in corduroy and smock frocks with sou’westers and wooden clogs, finishing off their practical outfits.[2]   A fish salesman, Edward Soloman, wore a dirty smock frock when he entered the breakfast room of the Three Tuns Hotel in Billingsgate, contrary to hotel regulations, and was turned out by the landlord.[3]  In 1881, a man put a white one on to sell fish in Billingsgate Market,[4] so white smocks seem to have been not uncommon.

Butchers too had a long association with the smock, the blue one in particular linked to the trade.  As smock manufactures diversified and specialised, particular smocks were made for the butchery trade which would have been less embellished than a traditional smock frock.  Edwin Butler sold ready-made clothes in Birmingham High Street, his stock in the mid-nineteenth century including butchers blue smocks.  In a dispute and alleged assault between a butcher and a Jewish salesman in Gloucester, the butcher was described as wearing ‘a dirty smock frock’.[5]  Even today, traditional butchers wear a white or blue and white striped coat as an overall, which seemingly has a lineage back to the smock.  Butcher’s blue has also become a particular type of colour still used for aprons and textiles associated with kitchen usage.  The smock continues to influence workwear even today.

[1] Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 16 October 1909, p. 9, where he was noted as a strong liberal and ‘ardent teetotaler’, a member of the friendly temperance society ‘Sons of the Phoenix’.

[2] Derby Mercury, 12 June 1872.

[3] Pall Mall Gazette, 8 January 1870, p. 2, London.

[4] Nottingham Evening Post, 29 October 1881.

[5] Gloucestershire Chronicle, 10 January 1846.  They were still wearing them at the end of the century, see a slander case between a butcher and a meat salesman in London, Illustrated Police News , 26 March 1898.

A smock moment!

Are smocking and smocks having a fashion moment?  Since I began working on the history of smock frocks a few years ago, smocking seems to have gradually crept into contemporary fashion.  With the move from body-con to what has been termed ‘frumpy’ or ‘dowdy’ fashion, where shape seems secondary to comfort, and perhaps chiming with politics today, both current feminist movements with women wearing what the heck they want to, ignoring conditioning to reveal flesh, and the idea of the homespun, handcrafted and nostalgic in a turbulent era, it also ties in with, increasingly importantly, what is seen as sustainable and wearable over a longer period of time. Influences for this ‘new’ fashion range from the smocks of Laura Ashley and the styles of Little House on the Prairie re-interpreted for TV in the 1970s-80s, to remembered childhood dresses and a sense of playfulness and dressing-up.

Vanguard fashion designers such as Molly Goddard, Batsheva Hay and the Vampire’s Wife have also been working with this look for several years.  As it has garnered more press, featured in Killing Eve series 1 for Molly Goddard for example, with her famous shocking pink tulle dress, and as celebrities choose such clothes for red carpet appearances, it has finally hit mass-production and the high street.  The phenomenon of the Zara polka-dot dress this summer is perhaps the result.

Smocking is in fact an elementary way of shaping what otherwise could just be loose and tent-like.  Shirring, an even easier derivation from smocking, which uses elastic ‘to smock’ and negates the need for time-consuming needlework, has had a revival particularly for summer dresses. Vogue’s summer dress of 2019 was a neon green shirred sundress.

Smocking, in its many forms, is an easy half-way house between the capacious tent dress and something more form-fitting.  Since it became popular for women and children in the 1880s, smocking has periodically been used in fashionable dress and is now being referenced by modern designers with a nod to historical influences.  For example, the 1890s




(and that is just from one brand this season!), all eras when smocking has previously been popular. The shirred ruched version can be quite form fitting, as seen recently on Lila Moss at New York Fashion Week, in a mint green outfit, far from the capacious tent dress.

With echoes of a traditional male smock frock, it also increasingly chimes with remembrance of the rural and nature in times of climate emergency.  It harks back to the past whilst being anchored in contemporary feminism and social issues, evoking modesty, nostalgia, comfort, practicality, ease and playfulness.

Think it is having a moment!


A sub-section of the criminal fraternity, the highwayman, found the smock frock very useful to wear.  This may have been partly as a disguse.  As it was worn by so many men the garment tended to equalise appearance and make them indistinguishable from other smock frock wearers.  As in the case of the high vis jacket today, all witnesses remembered was the smock frock, and no other details.[1]  As early as 1784, two highwaymen were at work outside Salisbury brandishing pistols to rob a horse chaise and a post chaise [a fast carriage].  One was wearing a blue round frock, the other a dirty white round frock.[2]  An attempted robbery of a gig on the road by a man disguised in a smock frock with a handkerchief over his face and large slouched hat, was fought off by the traveller in the carriage, Mr Fayerman, a surgeon from Norwich, using a whip in 1816.[3]

During the 1820s and 1830s, the smock was commonly used by many men including criminals. In 1822, George Church was robbed of a silver watch on the road near Aldbourn, by two footpads, that is robbers without horses, the men ‘dressed like farmers’ labourers, in smock frocks’.  A fifteen guinea reward was offered for information leading to arrest.[4]  Mr Johnson of Ashbourne in Derbyshire was robbed of nineteen sovereigns near Manton in Rutland in 1828, by three men looking like a ‘lower class of hawkers’, two dressed in smock frocks.[5]  In 1834, just outside Salisbury, ‘a tall athletic man, disguised in a mask and white smock frock’, stopped Mr Beckingsale, a shopman travelling on a horse, held a pistol to his head and asked for his money and his watch.  The robber escaped, although only with eighteen shillings and the watch.[6]  In 1832, David Abraham, a hawker of jewellery from Birmingham, was returning home with goods and money worth £107, when he was robbed by two men on the road, one with a pistol who was wearing a white smock frock over a blue coat.[7]   Four men dressed in white smock frocks also attacked the elderly Roderick M’Grigor and his son returning home to Iver from Uxbridge, stealing a silver watch and other silver money.[8]

In 1857, it was still being used as a disguise, a man shooting Mr Ovenden, a draper, with a pistol on the road between Nutfield and Warwicktown, Redhill, in Surrey and stealing his money. The draper had given the man, who appeared to be a labourer, a lift in his cart before he turned on him on a lonely part of the road demanding his money or his life.  The draper first thought it a joke but was then shot.  A large reward of £100-200 was promptly offered for information, the suspect carefully described by Mr Ovenden, as wearing a short navigator’s slop or smock frock, ‘very much worked about the breast and neck’.[9]  Many smocks would have been relatively plain and ready-made with little to distinguish one from another, so where there was something different to note, this was remembered.  However, it appeared to be a successful disguise with few reports of the capture of any of these ‘highwaymen’.

[1] See also the gilet jaune protests in France,

[2] Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 July 1784.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, 5 October 1816.

[4] Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 23 May 1822.

[5] Northampton Mercury, 20 September 1828.

[6] Sherborne Mercury, 24 February 1834.

[7] Coventry Herald, 28 September 1832.

[8] West Kent Guardian, 2 December 1837.

[9] Cheltenham Chronicle, 24 February 1857.

‘Dead Stonebreaker’

How the smock frock was depicted by artists has, to some extent, been dependent on the contemporary political situation. During the Napoleonic Wars, and especially during the blockade, at its strongest between 1807 and 1809, agriculture, and the production of food to feed the nation, were inherently patriotic with model labourers depicted in smock frocks.  During the difficult period of the 1840s, with the rise of Chartism and labour movements and the ever-present threat of rural starvation, few agricultural paintings were exhibited, seemingly out of place. Instead, genre scenes with the domestic affectations of the labourer, the myth of the virtuous peasant, contented, pious and devoted to farm life, were welcomed into middle-class homes as a balm against threats of revolution and Chartism.  From the late 1840s and 1850s, an awareness of rural poverty and distress began to permeate artists’ depictions, the Pre-Raphaelites, founded in 1848, striving for naturalism, rejecting the earlier approach of the virtuous peasant’s happiness.

In 1857, Henry Wallis, who was connected to the Pre-Raphaelites, painted ‘Dead Stonebreaker’.  For Wallis, this reflected the consequences of the unfavourable external conditions of society, contrasting with his most famous painting, the ‘Death of Chatterton’, which focussed on the personal internal struggles of one man and his supposed suicide.  The ‘Dead Stonebreaker’ depicts, as a review put it, ‘A man in a smock frock…dead upon a stone heap’.  The contemporary reviewer was sceptical about the subject, suggesting that if the painting wasn’t so titled, the viewer would just think the man asleep: ‘There are no indications of unusual poverty or disease about him, to warrant such an end; for his smockfrock is in very good condition for a stone breaker’s; and judging from his face, we should pronounce him to be both healthy and well fed.’ However, a review in the London Daily News was more compassionate: ‘Poor wretch, all his path in life has been beset with thorns! But he is at rest at last; no one waits for or will seek him; no one will miss him. His … face and low brow, tell of stolid ignorance and abject misery. He has never been a poacher or housebreaker; or come to London to be refined into a swindler and pickpocket….He is very dead.’  Although this subject struck a chord, the dark hues of the painting did not find favour with this critic.

The painting showed man’s oneness with nature, the stone breaker expiring with the day, a stoat on his foot.  The rural setting focussed the attention of the viewer on what were perceived to be rural problems:  the inhumanity of stone breaking, often work given to the able-bodied poor in a workhouse, and so the implicit criticism of rural poor relief, although also reflecting an universal concern for the poor.  The geographically remote setting provided a detached scene for universal issues to be played out with the indirect criticism of industrialisation.  His dress, including the short smock, is workwear, suggesting hard manual labour rather than a rural idyll which, despite the backdrop, it is not.

Such socially conscious art continued to develop, showing the down trodden reality of many labourers’ lives and became increasingly popular, collected by middle-class merchants, industrialists and professionals. Influenced by French artists such as Jules Breton, this movement reached its peak in the 1880s with the paintings of George Clausen, who using photography, drew labourers from life, although by this point, the smock frock was infrequently worn by them.


dead stonebreaker

Oscar Rejlander’s ‘The Wayfarer’


Oscar Rejlander was a photographer who found a way to depict a version of everyday working life, without this being too vulgar and disgusting for middle-class viewers. Originally Swedish, he had settled in Wolverhampton in around 1846. Trained as an artist, he therefore constructed scenes with settings in a studio.  Cameras were not taken onto the streets but models brought into the studio where they could be controlled and characteristics toned down with suitable clothing provided if necessary, a practice also carried out by the photographer Henry Peach Robinson. The search was for the picturesque and the passive, nothing threatening the status quo but embodying timeless virtues, and this was found in natural surroundings with rural workers, particularly those wearing a smock.   ‘The Wayfarer’, seen above, was reviewed by the Athenaeum in August 1859 in terms of art:  ‘It is admirable in light and shade, in broad daylight effect, and in exquisite detail.  It is, in fact, an Italian picture perfected with Dutch truth’.  The old labourer, going ‘to claim his parish’ and stopping for ‘a humble meal’ was critiqued in detail: ‘There is exquisite finish and work, too, about the plaited breast-plate of John Anderson’s smock frock as well as about the little quilled plaits and foldings that run like armlets round the wrists.  The veined hands are beautifully given; and, indeed, the whole thing is a triumph of photographic arrangement and manipulation’.  With his method and his artistry, Rejlander bridged the gap in photography between the contrived and the authentic.

Rejlander moved to London in the 1860s becoming a more formal portrait photographer, although he also collaborated with Charles Darwin, photographing human expressions for him.  However, this ‘sterile and manufactured’ tradition in art photography was gradually replaced by the social realism of the 1880s with photographers such as P. H. Emerson who took cameras outside.[1]  With more portable equipment such as the hand camera, and the introduction of the manufactured dry plate, photography became more accessible and cheaper leading to an explosion in amateur photography.  Forming societies, and with a constructive purpose in mind, record and survey work soon became popular, particularly documenting the rapidly disappearing rural way of life.    An address to amateur photographers in 1891 on rustic life studies noted that rustic labourers ‘on account of the peculiarities and oddities of their dress, and their careless and simple habits…many of the villages are…rather uncouth.  But still they are welcoming, clean and healthy…There is, therefore, nothing objectionable in mixing with them’.[2]  Portraits of elderly men in smock frocks were soon the result.

Science Museum Group. The Wayfarer. 1990-5036/11024. Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed May 13, 2019.

[1] A. E. Linkman, ‘The Workshy Camera: Photography and the Labouring Classes in the Nineteenth Century’, Costume, 25, 1. 1991, pp. 37-40.

[2] Cited Linkman, ‘The Workshy Camera’, p. 50.


George Smith the hangman

George Smith was one of the most notorious hangmen of the mid-nineteenth century, famous for executing William Palmer, also known as the Rugeley Poisoner.  A petty criminal himself, in and out of prison, Smith was a labouring man from Dudley and the Staffordshire hangman for sixteen years.

Until the last public executions in 1868, such occasions were a spectacle attracting large crowds with an expectation of a certain display.  The execution of John Tawell in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, drew crowds from London forty-five miles away, taken there by train, as well as people from the local area.  By the evening, farm labourers in their smock frocks and Jim Crow hats were described as streaming in to get a full view of the culprit.[1] In 1818 in Godalming, Surrey, farm labourers swelled the crowd who came to see the procession and execution of Chennell and Chalcraft, convicted of the ‘atrocious’ crime of patricide and murder of George Chennell, the correspondent commenting ‘we never observed so many smock-frocks and white hats in our life time’.  Chalcraft, who was convicted of murdering his master and a fellow servant, also wore a ‘new smock-frock’ for his execution, whereas Chennell, guilty of patricide, wore a black jockey coat, striped waistcoat and grey cotton pantaloons.[2]

At the time of William Palmer’s execution in 1856, as hangman Smith was described as a ‘respectable-looking countryman, about fifty years of age, dressed in a clean smock frock, such as drovers or farm labourers wear’.[3]  The fame that this execution brought him allowed Smith to trade on his reputation, acting as a ‘higgler’ or informal trader to sell himself essentially. [4]   However, he became insolvent, appearing in court in Stafford in the same smock frock he wore when acting as executioner, for which he had been reimbursed one pound.[5]  He was liable for the debts of a public house near Dudley where he had allowed his name to be used over the door, perhaps to attract custom as he had become something of a local celebrity.  The landlord absconded though, leaving him liable for debts he knew nothing about.[6]

Palmer’s execution was also re-enacted for travelling exhibitions using a tailor’s dummy, the proprietor boasting he had secured the services of the ‘real hangman’ although as Smith was at the time in prison for insolvency, this was carried out by an imposter much to the indignation of Smith.[7]  It seems that after the execution and bankruptcy, he traded on his notoriety, attracting customers to the Griffin Inn, Halifax, where he was a waiter. People came from Rochdale on special trains to see him in his white smock frock, and ‘receive their beer at his hands’.  He then went onto another pub in Bradford with other engagements afterwards.  In a court case at the York Assizes about the profits of the inn, one witness stated that he would not dine with the hangman, ‘as he did not like sitting down with a man who wore a smock frock’, whereas he wouldn’t have minded if he had been dressed as a gentleman, even if he was an executioner. The smock was here denoting a dubious character, partaking in blatant profiteering.  Smith was also described as a ‘chawbacon’, that is a yokel or bumpkin, so after the initial novelty, regular customers were driven away apparently disgusted, leaving the inn with further financial problems.[8]

Smith appears to have continued to act as executioner, carrying out the hanging of George Gardner for murder in 1862 in Warwick, the so-called Studley Murderer.  He again wore a long white smock, Gardner in a ‘short white slop’, though forgetting at first to put a cap over Gardner’s face, so he had to wait and face the crowd.[9] He also wore his white smock frock to carry out the execution of Samuel Griffiths in front of Chester Gaol in 1866,[10] and Hale and Brough outside Stafford Gaol, where he was described as looking ‘like one accustomed to the pursuit of farming’.[11]  Perhaps it gave Smith the air of a clergyman in a surplice.[12]  Perhaps it was just a cheap overall which he otherwise would have worn anyway but although common wear for many men during this period, the smock became associated with him as his particular dress.  One photograph of him in his smock survives in the Staffordshire Collections.


[1] Cambridge Independent Press, 29 March 1845.

[2] Westmorland Gazette, 22 August 1818.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, 21 June 1856.

[4] Western Mail, 5 January 1883.  Charles Moore was executed for murder at Stafford in 1853, the executioner described as a big man ‘rather conspicuously attired’ in a white smock frock, so likely to have been Smith, see Staffordshire Advertiser, 9 April 1853 and The Era, 17 April 1853.

[5] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 23 January 1857; Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser, and Penrith Literary Chronicle, 24 June 1856; Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857, the pound later appearing on his bankruptcy schedule.

[6] Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857.

[7] Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857 and Birmingham Journal, 3 January 1857.

[8] Westmorland Gazette, 25 July 1857, and Exeter Flying Post, 30 July 1857.

[9] Worcester Journal, 30 August 1862; see also Coventry Standard, 29 August 1862, where the prisoners dress is described as a white smock frock rather than a slop, showing the closeness of the definitions.

[10] Staffordshire Advertiser, 28 April 1866.

[11] Wellington Journal, 31 December 1864; the executioner of John Holden in Omagh was also an elderly man wearing a smock frock, see Morning Chronicle, 30 August 1860.

[12] Indeed, the surplice was compared to the smock frock, particularly the workmanship that went into both garments, see Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 September 1943, p. 8.

Smocks at The Great Exhibition of 1851

Corresponding with the peak of smock making and smock wearing is an example held by Abingdon Museum in Oxfordshire (OXCMS:1980.96.266).  It was made for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and so never worn.  It is a round smock, thus reversible, and made of fine linen.  It is smocked in honeycomb stem diamond patterns with embroidery on each side of the smocked panels, with three roundels containing variously flowers, a sheaf of corn, bees, and a woman on a sofa, possibly a smock maker, being crowned by an angel, the surround covered in hearts and leaves.  The wide collar is also embroidered with roundels, containing agricultural implements including a plough, harrow, rake, fork and shovel, and the inscription ‘success to Agriculture – God Speed the Plough’.  The infill embroidery has various motifs including sheaves of corn, hearts, flowers and leaves and there are similar embroidered panels at the top of the sleeves and on the cuffs.  It is an amazing piece of embroidered embellishment.

The smock was made by the firm of Harris and Tomkins, based in Abingdon, then in Berkshire, and described as ‘Wholesale Round Frock Manufacturers’ and ‘wholesale clothes manufacturers’ in trade directories of the 1840s.[1]  Abingdon was a centre for smock manufacture, Harris and Tomkins in competition with Hyde and Sons.  They had a shop in the High Street and both John Tomkins and Henry Harris, were from respectable local elite families sewn into the fabric of the town.  Family members fulfilled roles such as magistrate and alderman, upholding the reputation of the area.

The Great Exhibition was to show the best in international manufactured products, showcasing British goods against international competition, and whilst the smock has perhaps come, over the fullness of time, to symbolise something else, the display of a garment by clothes manufacturers perhaps fitted the brief to a greater degree than now realised.  It was apparently designed by their foreman Thomas Watson and worked by Esther Stimpson of the nearby village of Radley. Her sister Hannah, worked another smock also exhibited.  This way of manufacturing smock frocks was common at the time.  Smock cutters were male and often worked from a central base, rooms in the retail shop or factory.  Smock pieces were then taken out to be worked on and made up by women, either in the streets of Abingdon or the surrounding villages. Class 20 of the Great Exhibition was ‘Articles of clothing for immediate personal or domestic use’, and no. 111, Harris and Tomkins, manufacturers, were sandwiched between a quilted coat and instrument for quilting, and a ‘life preserving elastic cork jacket’, alongside stocking and hat manufacturers.  According to the Oxford University and City Herald, 18 October 1851, although failing to win a prize medal, their contribution won an ‘honourable mention’.

The smock remains a magnificent example and will hopefully be on display again this year when an exhibition of smocks opens at the Oxfordshire Museum from April 20th in the Treasures Gallery, Fletcher’s House, Park Street, Woodstock, OX20 1SN.

[1] Robson’s Commercial Directory of Berkshire, 1840 and Pigot’s Directory of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, 1844., pp. 583-4., p. 1060.

An object of dissent?

The current exhibition at the British Museum, ‘I object, Ian Hislop’s search for dissent’, displays around a hundred objects that challenge orthodox views or subvert the norm to question authority and I thought I would add the smock frock to this list.

There is a section in the exhibition about dress, ‘Wearing dissent’, which is an obvious way to stand out from the crowd and convey a message. Exhibited are items such as pin badges, garters and hats, all made and worn to express a particular view.  However, what I find more interesting, is when a common garment or everyday item is used to do this.  Sometimes the meaning is only known by those in the know and wearing or using that object is a way of showing solidarity with the cause.  As displayed in the exhibition, yellow umbrellas were adopted by demonstrators in Hong Kong in 2014 to protest against Chinese government reforms.  The ‘gilet jaune’ is another in France at the moment and the smock was one too in the mid-nineteenth century.  Common items that were worn anyway might not necessarily be recognised by authority as subversive and therefore defied detection but were known ciphers to those who shared similar beliefs.

The ‘smock frock’ and the ‘fustian jacket’ became two metaphors used by leaders of working-class movements challenging authority in the 1830s and 1840s, the ‘smock frock’ representing the aggrieved rural workers, whose conditions had arguable got worse than those working in manufacturing, the more famous ‘fustian jackets’.   With the political upheaval of the period, when working-class rebellion was seen as a very real threat by the authorities, political tracts were published for a penny each, appealing to the ‘Fustian Jackets & Smock Frocks’ – urban and rural workers, to take up the cause.  These covered subjects such as ‘Goody Goody, or State Education a National Insult’, or ‘Radicalism an Essential Doctrine of Christianity’.[1]  This radicalised and highly politicised interest is somewhat at odds with the image of a ‘smock frock’ wearing country yokel, boorish, illiterate and uneducated.

At a meeting of the Birmingham Political Union in 1836, ‘smock-frocks … and fustian jackets, were the prevailing costume of this enlightened auditory’.[2]   During a Chartist meeting in Wiltshire in 1841, before the crisis of the mid-1840s when starvation was a real problem for many rural labourers, the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor was called upon not to forget the ‘Jim Crow hats and smock frock labourers of Wilts, as well as the fustian jackets of the north’.[3]  Much of the labouring class already had many joint grievances.  O’Connor seems to have realised this as in a letter from him published the following year in the Northern Star newspaper he describes passing through Bilston, near Wolverhampton, where 500 Chartist members lived on one street, finishing his letter with the flourish, ‘Long life to the dear, good, and brave fellows, I call these smock-frock fellows, O’Connor’s own’.[4]

The smock frock was a symbol of the rural working labourer, but also one that was willing to challenge authority as part of a working-class movement to fight for a better life.



[1] Gloucester Journal, 6 May 1848.

[2] Royal Cornwall Gazette, 29 January 1836.

[3] Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 8 May 1841.

[4] Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 19 March 1842.

Thomas Burberry

In 1856, Thomas Burberry (1835-1926) set up a draper’s shop in Winchester Street, Basingstoke, Hampshire, which aimed to cater for the local population.  He seems to have started manufacturing his own clothing relatively quickly as by time that the 1861 census was taken, he was stated as employing seven men, three boys and seven ‘females’.  The women were likely to be employed making up shirts and smocks.  Burberry would have sold ready-made smocks to local men as a draper and four were left in his remaindered shop stock in 1909.  By 1871, he called himself a clothes manufacturer, employing eighty people, probably mainly women who would make up clothing in their own homes, as ‘out-door’ workers.  He patented his famous gabardine in 1879.  This was a breathable fabric that repelled water due to its twill weave and proofing of the yarn before and after manufacture, an alternative to the rubber of Mackintoshes.  As durable and practical work wear, the smock seems to have influenced Burberry’s development of their branded outerwear, a patent gained in 1896 for a coat put on over the head for farmers and sportsmen, much like the round frock.

Although Burberry moved away from working clothing to garments for country pursuits, such as shooting and fishing, their experience with smocks still influenced their products.  In 1903, they advertised ‘Burberrys Weather-all’, illustrated for fishing but described as for ‘Professional, Town, Sport and Country Wear’, a fly fisherman endorsing it for keeping him ‘dry as a bone’.  It came in the colours of black, grey, fawn, drab, brown and olive, thus very similar to smock colours and played on the term ‘overall’.[1]  By 1935, another fishing coat was advertised, the ‘Lancaster Smock’, popular since earlier in the century the advertisment claimed.  This you stepped into, the smock forming a tent-like covering to protect the lower limbs, so very similar to a traditional smock frock.


Now the Burberry name is synonymous with luxury and British heritage, the company’s latest campaign shot against iconic London landmarks. The origin of the firm, as a high street drapers selling workwear such as smocks, is often forgotten. However, the smock was mentioned in a recent Guardian interview with Christopher Bailey, formerly Burberry Chief Creative Officer, as waterproofing inspiration for Thomas Burberry.  As the new TB [Thomas Burberry] logo is promoted by Burberry, the firm seems to be looking back to the era of its foundation although I have yet to spot any smocks on the Burberry catwalks.

[1] See John Johnson Collection: Men’s Clothes 1m(20b), Bodleian Library,