From the medieval period until the eighteenth century, the smock was a female under-garment, worn next to the skin to help preserve expensive outer garments. The smock could be elaborately embellished with embroidery, a practice still carried out in the Elizabethan period. The lady of the house usually worked the embroidery on the collar, hem and neckline, and round the bottom of the long sleeves, Queen Elizabeth having hers embroidered with caterpillars and birds. The term smock was superseded by the shift and then the chemise, all essentially the same garment.
This is a rare example, dated 1580-1600, displayed recently in the ‘Lace in Fashion’ exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath, embellished with embroidery and Flemish bobbin lace.
A letter from a lady, May Kensington, in 1888, noted the smock races held in Mayfair during the reign of Queen Anne, when young girls would race for an elaborate smock or chemise. This tradition seems to have continued throughout the eighteenth century. In an account of ‘rural sports’ in Margate in 1808, the whole event was slightly ridiculed by the reporter. The prizes were paraded through the town on a triangular pole before the sports started at noon, a typical showing of the prizes. Over a thousand people of ‘all ranks and descriptions’ attended. The ladies race, ‘under 60’ for a new Holland chemise, only had one entrant, a fisherman’s daughter, despite the fact that the prize was advertised as being equivalent to a fashionable gown and petticoat. The amusements were directed by those of ‘a superior class’, the day passing generally with ‘fun and good humour’. Parson Woodeforde’s diaries describe watching a smock race in 1784 in Norfolk for Whitsun festivities, and rural sports such as races in a variety of ways, three-legged or wheelbarrow for instance, remained important events in the annual calendar. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it seems to have been not uncommon for girls and women to run and race, with even specialist female runners developing. Locally, the names of those who were good at running were well-known for the annual and occasional events where races were held. However, women were increasingly sidelined from participation from the early nineteenth century onwards.
Female races were increasingly seen as risqué, the women running in just their shift or other garments which allowed freedom of movement, so that they were showing off their bodies. Decency and respectability were more important than winning a prize and it was therefore difficult to get participants. However, men continued to run and, during this period, the smock also became associated with masculine attire, developing into a garment with a different usage.
Rowlandson’s 1811 print, shows such female racing: