A Fishy Tale…

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.


(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 https://www.zara.com/uk/en/sweater-with-puff-sleeves-p09874106.html?v1=20664105&v2=1281662

1910s https://www.zara.com/uk/en/shirt-dress-p01131923.html?v1=25955587&v2=1281625

1930s https://www.zara.com/uk/en/floral-print-tulle-dress-p05584458.html?v1=23414255&v2=1281625

1970s https://www.zara.com/uk/en/floral-print-blouse-p02183244.html?v1=20511696&v2=1281626

(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. https://www.hellomagazine.com/fashion/hfm/2019091077496/what-happened-at-new-york-fashion-week-spring-2020/

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, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/03/who-are-the-gilets-jaunes-and-what-do-they-want.

[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. 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.


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.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=jo9ZAAAAYAAJ&dq=engraving+wax+seals&q=class+20#v=snippet&q=class%2020&f=false, pp. 583-4.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sffNAAAAMAAJ&dq=engraving+wax+seals&q=class+20#v=snippet&q=class%2020&f=false, 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,



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