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. https://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co8346013.

[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 Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 18 October 1851, although failing to win a prize medal, their contribution won an ‘honourable mention’ for being ‘exceedingly well made by two cottagers’.

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.


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,



Mending and Maintenance

The ‘biographies’ of garments is an expanding research area, as the personal and physical relationship that we have with our clothes is investigated by academics.  How people care for their clothing, both today and in the past, can perhaps give us a small insight into how they regard their own garments.  In this era of fast fashion, where clothing is a cheap commodity that can be readily changed and thrown away, it is easy to forget how expensive and valuable clothing was, even the most common garments costing at least a week’s wages.  Smocks, like other working garments, were easily stolen, often by other working men, and sold and exchanged for cash because of this inherent value.  For this reason alone, their monetary value, their maintenance was a routine task.

However, the pride shown in clothing by working people during the nineteenth century is also visible in the smock by the very fact that it is often embellished, for example with embroidery, suggesting that their appearance and decorativeness was important to their wearer.  They could be cherished enough to passed on generation to generation.  Of course, there is some differentiation between those worn for best and for rituals such as weddings and funerals, and workaday ones, which were likely to be plainer and worn until they fell apart into rags, which could then be sold and recycled.

Looking at surviving smocks though, you can see the care taken to repair damage, to maintain the garment and keep it wearable.  The wear patterns of clothing, as a memory of the wearer, is both old fashioned object analysis and a fashionable topic itself, with the current FIT exhibition in New York, ‘Fashion Unraveled’, with its focus on altered, unfinished and deconstructed garments.  The imperfections and flaws of a garment are highlighted to emphasize the emotional as well as the economic impact of clothing for its wearer. Visible mending, as a way to enhance a garment and stop it from becoming obsolete and thrown away, has also had a new surge of interest.  Led by artists such as Celia Pym, the old skills of darning and mending, which all girls once learnt, are being re-learnt by people today.

The smock was made to be durable and guard against wear, one of the purposes of smocking in the first place, but in surviving smock frocks, wear patterns are often similar: fraying around the cuffs, holes in the skirt and the smocking rubbed and starting to become undone. A smock I recently examined in the Somerset Heritage Centre (see above) had the most beautiful visible mending with a series of holes all edged with blanket stitch.  Other areas were also patched and darned, suggesting the desire to maintain and preserve the use of the garment as best as possible (see below).  Even ordinary working clothing was required to last extensive periods of time, with its relatively expensive cost, so mending clothing was part of the everyday schedule.  It is a skill which has been forgotten but as debates around the effects of fast fashion grow, one that many are rediscovering.



photographs @ https://swheritage.org.uk/




The Art of Kate Greenaway

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) is famed for her illustrations of children in ‘old fashioned’ clothing, the girls often in neo-classical dress styles.  A talented artist, she was also on the fringes of the dress reform movement, which was influential for the upper and middle-classes as the aesthetic dress movement during the 1870s and 1880s.  The looseness of the smock frock’s form and the elasticity of the smocking allowed freedom of movement. Its simplicity and the Arts and Crafts feel of the embroidery, traditional and hand-crafted with care, was more appealing than over-elaboration and machine-made embellishment, fitting well with the movement’s ideals.

Greenaway’s drawings from the 1870s and 1880s adapted a style of dress that she had seen as a child growing up in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, close to Newark, a centre for readymade smock frock manufacture.  Greenaway is often credited with introducing this style of clothing for children.  Her first book, Under the Window, published in 1879, featured boys in various coloured smock frocks.  A newspaper commented in 1880 that dozens of elaborately stitched and gathered smocks could be seen hanging in ready-made clothes shops if women wanted to study the newest fashion for children. The rusticating of children’s fashion was also noted in 1881, said to have been influenced by the illustrations of Kate Greenaway. Little smock-frocks were ‘all the rage’ with bright stitchery on the ‘old milkman’s elaborate yoke’.  For Greenaway, as in rural areas, boys wore smocks and she was criticised by Lady Harberton of the Rational Dress Society for children’s clothes that were ‘unsuited to the practical needs and comforts of boys’ and girls’.


Greenaway may have popularised the style initially for boys, the smock fitting well into the trend for elements of play and fantasy in boys’ clothing of the period, for example sailor suits and kilts. However, unisex smocks followed the aesthetic for children’s clothing during the 1880s, influenced by the dress reform movements.  The style spread into everyday children’s wear, with variants of different qualities for different occasions, for example silk for best or occasional wear, becoming a ‘common’ fashion item, a situation that remains today.  Widely adopted and mass-manufactured, a constant demand kept prices low for consumers of all classes.  This adoption of a working garment, as with also the sailor suit although this had more militaristic connotations, became associated with middle-class dressing practices, although it was widely adopted across all classes.  By the late 1880s, ‘Liberty’ smock frocks for children were being sold throughout the country, for instance at Corder and Sons, high-class dressmakers in Sunderland, presumably made-up with Liberty fabric.

The Liberty Mab Smock, a revival of the traditional garment, supposedly based on Greenaway’s designs, remained popular and a stock garment for children of both sexes into the twentieth century. Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen Mother, was photographed wearing one in 1907 and Clara Frances Lloyd, who worked for Liberty, recalled making them into the 1920s. Lloyd, who worked in the embroidery rooms at Liberty, recalled that they ‘did more smocking than embroidery…[it] was a speciality of the house’, the popularity of the style aided by Princess Mary, who dressed her boys in smocks, thus giving them royal kudos.  Prince George and Princess Charlotte continue to wear clothing based on this smock today, now seen as classic garment.

princess charlotte


Carters and smocks

Carters were essential to nineteenth century life, being the people who helped transport goods and produce around the country.  This could be on a fairly local scale, acting as local carriers, but they were also employed to move goods around by horse-drawn carts at dock yards and similar working environments, as well as transport quantities of produce around farms, a role the tractor would eventually take over.


Carters at Liverpool Docks

They likewise could fulfil long-distance movement of goods, as haulage companies would today.  They were one of the occupations that became associated with wearing the smock frock in both rural and urban settings, carters and waggoners seen at hiring fairs, according to Thomas Hardy, in their smocks with a piece of whipcord twisted around their hats looking for work.  In the 1880s, looking back at earlier in the century, a gentleman remembered a driver in a smock frock waiting with his horses and waggons in Piccadilly, otherwise known as the start of ‘the road to Reading’, or the A4 today.  As the report remarked in 1884, ‘Few people nowadays ever think of that biscuit-making town as they saunter idly along Piccadilly’.

So strongly did the smock and the carter become connected that in processions and more formal occasions it was the dress that they chose to wear.  In 1846, for the Milborne Port Friendly Society procession, carters wore their smock frocks and straw hats decorated with red and green ribbons as they were in charge of a waggon parading the new church bells through the local streets.  Indeed, ‘Waggoner’s Frocks’ or ‘Carter’s Smock’ was a generalised name given to the garment in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, the Workwoman’s Guide of 1838, which included instructions about how to make one.  These jobs and the people who did them, were probably one of the most visible wearers of smocks to observers in urban areas. A waggoner’s smock survives in Lincolnshire, owned by G. Codling, a waggoner of Nettleham, Lincolnshire.  On each button is a picture of a wagon and the name ‘G. Codling’, so this may have been a way of promoting the business as much as any practical dress by the mid nineteenth century.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the role of the carter diminished as horse power became mechanised and like the smock frock itself, was superseded by new jobs.  Along with shepherds, it, however, remained one of the occupations most associated with wearing the smock frock.

From Fieldwork to the Pages of Vogue

Further to my last post, my new article has just been published in the journal Textile History (May 2018).  This traces how the smock frock moved from being  a nineteenth century utilitarian overall worn by male manual labourers and particularly associated with agricultural work, to appearing on the front cover of American Vogue as an item of female clothing in 1915.  It discusses how the smock was used by artists, particularly those associated with the aesthetic and rational dress movements, and the influence that the smock had on children’s wear at the end of the nineteenth century.

figure 2

The importance of the actress Ellen Terry and her daughter Edith Craig in the transformation of the smock into a piece of women’s wear is investigated and also the garment’s influence on American fashion.  The smock frock, once a marker of a male manual labourer, managed  to bridge the gap between high fashion and workwear, and also menswear and womenswear, and become part of mainstream fashion, the shape perennially revived ever since the early twentieth century. The impact of the smock on children’s wear has also been significant, witness Princess Charlotte’s dress when she was photographed visiting her new baby brother just last week. How and why these changes happened are what my article seeks to at least start answering, and how a garment associated firmly with one particular gender can be transformed into something altogether more fluid.  This started off as a sideline to my main research but has turned out to be a fascinating subject in itself and the more I investigate, the more I find!

There are some free e-copies of my article for those who want to know more and get there first, link below:








The Artist’s Smock

For those with messy jobs, an overall has always been necessary, to prevent other clothes from getting dirty.  The smock frock was one such overall.  However, the artist’s smock has almost become legendary in its own right, with its Bohemian vibe and association with artists’ enclaves such as St. Ives, although here also mixed with the maritime smock.  Whilst these garments have often been plain and voluminous, an oversized shirt if you will, as we used to use our Dad’s cast-off shirts as a cover-up for art at primary school in the 1970s, the smock frock was also used for this purpose by artists.

As they became increasingly mass-produced in the second-half of the nineteenth century and therefore cheap, artists could acquire them easily and inexpensively.  In 1893, George Frederick Watts, displayed a portrait of a youth in a ‘smock-frock’, according to the Graphic. Art historians have seen this as an earlier self-portrait of the artist as a younger man.  In the later years of his life, he was described as busying himself with artistic pursuits at his home Limnerslease, near Guildford, wearing white trousers and a white smock.  Part of his house is now the Watts Studios museum.  Mary Watts, his second wife, was also photographed wearing an embroidered smock frock while plastering ceiling panels for Limnerslease in 1890-3.

The sculptor, Hamo Thornycroft, was another well-known artist wearer of the smock frock.  As the Pall Mall Gazette reported in 1890, ‘He invariably dons a white smock frock of the pattern associated with village rustics, and his clay be-daubed hands complete the resemblance’. Vanity Fair published a drawing of him as part of its ‘Spy’ series, wearing such an outfit. It was dated February 20th 1892 and entitled ‘Bronze Statuary’, in the ‘Men of the Day’ series.

figure 4

So whilst every artist would wear some kind of overall, by the late nineteenth century the smocking on the smock frock, whether handmade or mass produced, also appealed on another level to many artists interested in dress reform and less restrictive clothing. Watts and Thornycroft were members of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, Thornycroft designing a partially smocked and less restrictive Liberty silk dress for his wife, dating from around 1885, now in the V & A Museum.

thornycroft dress


The hand-crafted feel with embroidered embellishment similarly appealed to those working in the Arts and Crafts movement, such as Arthur Stone (1847-1938), a silversmith born in England but who worked in the USA.  His smock was hand embroidered with a dragon holding a chisel.

stone smock


By the early twentieth century, the smock had become fashionable informal wear for women, a protective overall for gardening, housework and artistic pursuits.  The move to become an acceptable female garment rather than something worn by male labourers was due to its artistic and dress reform associations.

For further on this subject see: ‘The Smock Frock: The Journey from Fieldwork to the Pages of Vogue’, Textile History, online or May 2018.