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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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’. 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’.
 See also the gilet jaune protests in France, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/03/who-are-the-gilets-jaunes-and-what-do-they-want.
Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 July 1784.
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.