I am thrilled to be part of the British Textile Biennial (@britishtextilebiennial), which is currently on, in person until the end of October, and online. I recorded a podcast with the brilliant Amber Butchart (@amberbutchart) on all things smock. Find it below or on the British Textile Biennial website, if you would like a listen!
A newspaper report in 1895 asked, ‘Where is the Smock-Frock?’, noting that it was a marker of the ‘old, hardy and honest peasantry’. Forty or fifty years ago they were a common sight, but now ‘Old England’s rural garb is rarely seen!’, the railway and education, in particular, having changed rural society, not in a good way for this article. With urban migration and the take-up of machine made suits, now labourers were ‘similitudes of semi-gentlemen … our villages are depopulated, and we have lost our happy and contented peasantry’.
As the smock declined in everyday usage during the late nineteenth century and, simultaneously, was sought out as something which summed up the disappearance of a rural way of life, the figure of the smock frock veteran emerged. These were elderly men who had worn smocks all their lives and continued to do so until their deaths in the early twentieth century, having survived the hardships of nineteenth-century labouring work. Now representing something of an oddity, the newspapers reported about the deaths of these men, revealing fascinating insights into ordinary labouring lives.
When Joseph Guise reached a hundred years of age in 1895 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, details about his life were related in a newspaper article coinciding with a celebration in the town. He was presented with a photograph of himself and was to be paid gifted money in monthly instalments. Asked if he could read to display his faculties, he replied that he never could but he was still able to see very well. He had had a varied career in a mill and then a button factory, also nail making and being a waggoner, along with haulage and farming, where he lost an arm in a threshing machine accident when aged 64. He had never smoked but was not teetotal but temperate and generally conservative in his habits including his dress. ‘It is only upon the rarest occasions that he has discarded his smock frock, and it is over 70 years since he wore a pair of trousers’, preferring breeches and gaiters as reported by the newspaper.
In Downland Glimpses of the Past, syndicated in various newspapers, elderly men told of their struggles during the hungry forties when all they had to eat was bread, or nothing at all. There was no tea, only water poured over a crust and they burnt anything they could find for fuel. A picture of extreme poverty and destitution, they just ‘existed’, although there was work for everyone, before machinery, however poorly paid. The smock frock was their ‘chief garment’, although by the twentieth century, its charms were emphasized with the ‘simplicity’ of dress that it engendered: ‘The beautiful old smock-frock much be-pleated and embroidered, has almost vanished, and certainly no man would dream of coming to church in one, in these days of cheap shoddy. One sees them, now and again, on ancient gaffers – but very rarely’. By the late nineteenth century, the ‘beauty’ of the smock frock overlaid one of the main reasons that men chose to wear them in the mid nineteenth century – that they were cheap, indirectly highlighting the poverty of labourers.
Down a leafy lane, ‘far from the blinding dust of tearing motors’, a reporter found himself at Brittenden Farm, Waldron, Sussex, where Shepherd Stace and his wife were celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary. Now in his eighties, Stace had always worn smock frocks, ‘and would now if he could get the material’, being married in one at the time of the Crimean War. Mrs Stace made them for him and for many others locally, her last one, made fifteen years previously, winning first prize in a competition at Cross in Hand. The report relays details about Stace’s career as a shepherd and the prizes that he won for sheep shearing.
In 1911, James Stevens, an agricultural labourer, born in 1808, died in Tring, Hertfordshire. He had regularly walked to church wearing a green smock frock and gaiters up until his last few years and had visited London when ninety years old, still attired in a smock frock and beaver hat thus attracting attention. Likewise, the ‘last of the race of Derbyshire yeoman farmers who wore and worked in the smock frock’, John Redfern, was noted as dying in 1915 in Wirksworth, known for attending fairs and markets in his ‘quaint’ costume on a white pony. Similarly, the death of William James known as ‘Briar Bill’, as he collected briars from hedgerows for J. Perkins and Sons Nursery at Kingsthorpe, was reported in Crowfield in 1914, the newspaper noting ‘… with him vanishes from this district the ancient garb typical of the country rustic’.
An agricultural labourer, John Turney, was photographed in a smock when an elderly man in 1910, the newspaper reporting about his death a few years later describing him as a ‘life-long radical’ and the principal worker for the Swanbourne Baptist Chapel in Buckinghamshire. The smock he wears is relatively new and worn over his best suit, the photograph sent to Lloyd George and Herbert Leon, a local liberal politician, presumably as a statement of support from rural working men.
The longevity of these men, and their participation in their local communities over the years, gave them a rarefied status, amplified by their continual wearing of the then old-fashioned smock. Photographed both as an oddity and as something unique, these images have also influenced how we think about the smock today, as a special garment worn by elderly men in the countryside, rather than as a piece of durable workwear commonly worn by many men in urban and rural areas, as smocks were more usually used at the height of the smock trade during the mid-nineteenth century. The smock was additionally an indicator of the material hardship of many of these men’s lives.
Worcester Journal, 30 March 1895; see also Worcestershire Chronicle, 15 July 1893, for a celebration two years previously in Bromsgrove.
Dundee Evening Telegraph, 21 January 1913, p. 6, and ‘The Hungry Forties’, North Devon Journal, 13 January 1910, p. 7.
Sussex Agricultural Express, 16 October 1914, p. 10.
Northampton Mercury, 10 February 1911, p. 11. See Bucks Herald, 21 January 1911, p. 6 for his 103rd birthday and Yorkshire Evening Post, 16 January 1911, p. 4, which included a picture. His picture is reproduced as the frontispiece to O. Cave, Traditional Smocks and Smocking (Mills and Boon Ltd, London, 1979) and he is also mentioned in M. Jones, ‘The Vanished Smock-Frock’, Country Life, 11 April 1857, pp. 719-20.
Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 December 1915, p. 4; Newcastle Journal, 29 December 1915, p. 2.
 See also James Reed of Thorley, Hertfordshire, who wore a ‘beautifully embroidered’ smock frock, Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 September 1907, p. 3; and George Holden of Pinchbeck West near Spalding, ‘the last to wear the old-fashioned smock frock in the Fen country … his attachment to the smock frock was the subject of much comment in the locality’, Leeds Mercury, 23 October 1907, p. 3; also William Stinton in Hanley William, Worcestershire, ‘one of the now fast-expiring race of farmers who cling to the smock frock’, Worcestershire Chronicle, 7 November 1903, p. 8; George Hayward, died aged ninety-one, of Needham Market, Suffolk, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 September 1908, p. 3; Thomas Coster, of Newport, Isle of Wight, died aged eighty-five, the ‘last island farmer to wear a smock frock’, see Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3 March 1921, p. 3; death of William Sturmey, the last to wear the white smock-frock in the parish of Milton Abbey, see Western Gazette, 27 April 1906, p. 4; see also the death of eighty-three year old John Holmes, the last representative of the smock frock in Matlock, Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 23 June 1894.
I am very excited to announce that my book on smocks will be published on 20th May 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic.
A social history of a single garment, my cast list includes Ellen Terry, Georgia O’Keeffe, the WI, body snatchers, navvies, Molly Goddard, John Dryden and many more.
For me it is a way to delve into working-class clothing histories, so often hidden and forgotten, the preference being instead for ‘fashion’ history. Likewise, menswear is often brushed over in writing about historic clothing, especially once the suit was dominant as masculine dress.
I feel passionate about uncovering the clothing practices of working people – around seventy per cent of the population by the 1860s. Although not always seen as very exciting, garments thought of as practical and unchanging, I hope that my research on smocks will help to change this way of thinking. In addition, smocks survive in numbers, unlike most working-class dress, allowing a material examination of garments to be undertaken.
I also look at smocks as emotional objects, evoking nostalgia for the rural, and a specific vision of England in the past, which is continually re-invoked through various media. As smocks became part of children’s wear in the late nineteenth century, and remain so today, they are similarly associated with childhood sentiment and often the making of children’s clothing at home.
I am very pleased that my book is also being offered in paperback so hopefully this will make if more affordable.
The Corn Laws, in place between 1815-46, were, in brief, tariffs on imported grain and food, designed to give domestic producers better prices for their produce, but in reality causing food prices to rise and distress and hunger for working people unable to produce food for themselves. As protests against the Corn Laws gained momentum, a Corn Law Convention was held in London in 1840 to discuss if the Corn Laws benefitted agricultural labourers and to petition Lord Melbourne for their abolition. James Vickery (Vicary), a farm labourer from Great Torrington in Devon, gave evidence. His details also survive in the 1841 census, where he lived in Mill Street, the oldest street in the town, and so in poor housing conditions:
see photograph: https://ehive.com/collections/4593/objects/170028/mill-street-torrington
From the newspaper report, the hard life of the agricultural labourer emerges, including the various clothing practices his family undertook to survive. He could earn from 7- 9 shillings a week for his family, his wife and four children aged from 18 to 3, with two older children from his first marriage living outside the home. His eighteen-year-old daughter and wife earned money each week from gloving, that is making up gloves, a large industry for female outworkers in the area, working from home, with 11 manufacturers in the town in 1844, ‘the principal branch of trade carried on’. His daughter made around a shilling or 1s 6d, his wife only 6d. His sixteen year old son was described as ‘a little simple’ and ‘could do nothing’, so most likely with a learning disability, which severely impacted on his wife’s earning ability, so their total income never exceeded 11 shillings a week. James worked on a farm or helped to maintain the nearby Rolle Canal. He kept a pig, to get bacon, and cultivated potatoes on some land he got in exchange for giving a farmer the pig’s dung and refuse. After describing his rents, bread and coal expenditure, plus the rates he was liable for, including the poor rate, he then described his clothing practices.
‘He could not find much clothing’, having on his best jacket which he had owned for seven or eight years, as well as his secondhand breeches bought at the same time, both kept for Sundays and worn to the convention. His ordinary clothes were ‘very mean’ and he had mended and patched his working breeches so much, putting one piece on top of another, that they weighed ‘nearly forty pounds’ (18kg). This brings to mind the extremely patched clothing sometimes found stuffed in chimneys for example, where it is difficult to tell what is the original garment, see:
He had patched his clothing himself, as ‘he did not like to go ragged’. The breeches were bought at around the same time as he married his first wife, thirty years previously, which also suggests a sentimental attachment to them and a determination to keep them wearable.
James had bought some sail canvas trousers and a short smock frock a couple of years previously to supplement his working wardrobe. His shirt linen was bought from packmen, an itinerant door to door seller, as was the material for his wife and children’s clothing, both paid for in small sums, the clothing probably made up by his wife. He had two shirts made-up from this linen. They paid for their shoes in weekly instalments and he needed a new pair of everyday shoes each year as they wore out. The family slept in two beds in their two bedroom house and he had made a grate, his only other possessions seemingly two chairs, some homemade stools, ‘three candlesticks, two pots, and a tea kettle’. He suggested that life was easier previously, with lower barley prices, and they were more likely to have a ‘bellyful’ then although his wife’s clothing was now cheaper. However, they were in debt with the house rent and barely had enough to eat. The report concluded that his life was probably not typical as he was not a skilled labourer and gloving also was ‘perhaps the worst paid sewing work’. With a disabled sixteen year old son, which compromised their wage earning potential as a family, they were deemed not representative and their case had no bearing on the Corn Law question, for the newspaper commentator anyway.
However, the clothing practices described by this one labourer, despite, or maybe because of, their limited income, underline the variety of methods which went into obtaining and maintain clothing, including smocks. Cobbled together, patched up, secondhand, bought for and paid in instalments from itinerant sellers, homemade and shop bought readymade, repaired by men and made by women, all within this one family. In Torrington, tailors, drapers and a pawnbroker are listed in the contemporary trade directory but in reality, ordinary families relied on clothing strategies that went far beyond this to maintain their appearance.
Very excited and honoured to be part of the upcoming Bucks History Festival, 12th-13th September 2020. Having grown up in Buckinghamshire, I know the county well. My podcast covers some basic questions about smocks including:
Who wore smocks?
What are they made of?
When did people start wearing them?
What colours are they?
It also looks at some specific examples in the context of Buckinghamshire, including the wonderful collection of photographs of prisoners from the 1870s, some of whom also wore smocks.
I wrote a few months ago about the popularity of smocking in
current women’s fashion. Now I have come
to the conclusion that it is also re-entering male fashion, albeit in a very
small way, at the moment anyway.
This has been helped by ‘cottagecore’, a subcultural online movement, which expresses a yearning for the pastoral, finding solace in nature. An aspirational nostalgia for a simple life, beyond the digital world, it has moved from outsider teen to more mainstream during the Covid-19 Pandemic and lockdown. With anxiety about the future, including the looming global climate crisis, many people sought comfort in the newly renewed natural world, in both urban and rural areas, if only for a couple of months. The animals and birds have taken over the streets was a common news item at the beginning of lockdown. For some, the desire to live from a small piece of land and dressing in a way to express this, is the ultimate goal, even if, in the main, only vicariously lived through online portals.
The styles which have gone with this, for women, have been around for several months, the prairie dress, floral prints, flowing dresses and smocking and shirring. As the Guardian highlighted a couple of weeks ago, cottagecore style for men has begun to go mainstream, celebrities such as Harry Styles and David Beckham, wearing cardigans and flat caps, with online searches for items such as smocks considerably up.
The smock is regarded today much as members of the aesthetic dress movement saw it: associated with rural otherness, hand crafted but practical, hardwearing but decorative – of the country ‘folk’. However, for most of the nineteenth century, it was something else completely, but, in times of anxiety, this version of the smock periodically comes to the fore, adding comfort and representing a nostalgia for a particular manufactured vision of the rural that many yearn for, but which is probably unachievable for most and never really existed anyway.
In some ways, the silver lining of the lockdown was to give us a small slither of an idea of what things might have once been, traffic levels in the UK back to that of the 1950s, few aircraft around, blue skies and birdsong. A brief new reality, where possible, savoured, in brief sorties outside, and now fast disappearing as we return to ‘normal’. The yearning for nature and a simple existence is perhaps amplified, as our anxieties are still un-allayed. Wearing smocks and other cottagecore style clothing, offers a chance to visually express this yearning for change, for purity and a simple life, in a way visible to all, both online and in the street for men and women.
As the Covid 19 Pandemic continues across the world, a PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) crisis has developed as frontline workers try to deal with protecting both themselves and others, and prevent further spreading the virus, by using protective clothing. Plague masks are well-known as historical protective wear but during the nineteenth century the smock frock was also used as a protective overall against disease.
In Lincolnshire, in 1866, the smock frock was suggested as
the best dress to wear when cattle plague struck. In a meeting called to discuss the crisis,
basic hygiene rules were discussed, for example, that there should be people
solely to attend to the infected cattle, the smock frock suitable for protective
garb as cotton would not carry the infection like wool articles would.
It presumably could also be washed. However, in Warwickshire, in 1865, Rinderpest
or Cattle Plague was seen by one letter writer as being spread by smock
frocks. In cavalry regiments, he argued,
when horses were ill, they were immediately isolated and the stables
cleaned. He urged ‘caution and
cleanliness’, so suggested destroying smock frocks worn by those tending
diseased cattle, as the ‘contagion’ would also be carried in the clothing; ‘for
the smell of the smock-frock may infect the whole dairy of cows’. This was a virus, which has now been
eradicated, but could be transmitted by particles in the air, so although not
the smell, he was close to the way the virus was transferred. Contemporary virulent diseases such as typhus
were in fact transferred through clothing.
Likewise in 1884, there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Northumberland. Those who came into contact with infected animals were advised to change their clothing and wear a canvas or cotton cap, smock frock, a pair of overalls and a pair of boots or shoes, so their ordinary clothing was not exposed. Here, the term overalls, seems to refer to trouser coverings, as jeans were referred to in the US, originally worn over other trousers. Both the smock and overalls could be obtained from local inspectors for loan free of charge, in an attempt to control the disease with these regulations.
Today, once more, the importance of protective clothing, and the need to maintain and change that clothing, is again emphasized, as we fight a new virus with many of the same techniques – isolation, washing and personal protection through clothing. The smock was the precursor to many of these protective gowns and lab coats. Ironically, companies such as Burberry, who initially expanded through the manufacturing of smocks, have helped realise some of the growing demand for PPE by changing their current output to again make protective clothing for the NHS.
Morpeth Herald, 20 September 1884. This was also the case in
Gloucestershire, where a smock frock was to be kept entirely for use of the
person attending the cattle and left on the premises, see Western Gazette, 28 September 1883
During the nineteenth century, when smock frocks were commonly worn by many men, they could also be used by those engaged in ‘criminal’ activity to prevent easy identification and facilitate a disguise of sorts. The Rebecca Riots were a series of protests against tolls charged to use local roads, as well as general poverty and poor conditions, in rural west Wales. Protesters called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’ probably after a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them’ (Genesis XXIV, verse 60). In 1843 the Rebecca Riots were reported in the Gloucestershire Chronicle. A mob of around a hundred people had assembled in Nantgarredig, near Carmarthen. They were disguised, with their faces blackened, and wearing smock frocks, carrying implements to use as weapons. The smock frock had almost become a uniform so that the members of the ‘mob’ were no longer individuals but could act as one to carry out their aims. It was also reported that a group of twenty-four men, some ‘dressed in smock frocks’, came down the Fishguard Road to over-run and destroy the Prendergast Toll near Haverfordwest, demolishing the gateposts and signboard.
The ‘riots’ have become infamous as the men who took part were often reported to have dressed as Rebecca, that is in women’s clothing. This ‘cross-dressing’ was also commonly used to take part in popular customs, part of the carnival ‘world-turned-upside-down’ order. Popular custom and popular protest shared characteristics such as disguise, using masks or blackened faces, and the transvestitism of men dressed in women’s clothes. Politics and protest could be integrated into customary celebrations, for example, mumming plays, May Day, Plough Monday and Whit week, the processions and gatherings of local communities giving an opportunity to air grievances, even if underhand and not overtly displayed. However, in reality, the white gowns that many of the Rebecca rioters were said to have been wearing were probably smock frocks, which were widely available in Wales, especially in Cardiff and in the border region. The smock was white, loose, cheap, could stand-in for female dress and was usually commonly to hand for male labourers. It was also symbolically complex, it’s meaning dependent on who was reading it. As a symbol of rural poverty and oppression for some wearers, it is not unsurprising that it was used for popular protest.
 K. Navickas, ‘”That sash will hang you”: Political Clothing and Adornment in England, 1780-1840’, Journal of British Studies, 49, July 2010, pp. 559-64.
 For example a smock frock was stolen from a house at Tredegar, see Hereford Times, 3 October 1863; and another similar case at Llanddewi Rhydderch, near Abergavenny, see Hereford Times, 12 December 1857. Smock frocks and hats were raced for at Abergavenny when waiting for the first sod of the Newport, Abergavenny, Hereford railway to be cut, Hereford Times, 31 January 1852. See also M. G. Rees and C. Stevens, ‘Smocks in the Welsh Folk Museum Collection’, Medel, vol. 3, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, one in the collection from the Dolgellau region, worn by a farmer and made by his daughter, p. 35, no. 45327/1.
As I have noted in my previous blog about milkmen [http://www.smockfrock.co.uk/the-white-of-the-milkman/], 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.
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, 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. 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. In 1881, a man put a white one on to sell fish in Billingsgate Market, 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’. 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.