The smock as protective clothing against outbreaks of disease

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.[1]  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’.[2]  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.[3]  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.[4]   

See also:

[1] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 12 January 1866.

[2] Coventry Standard, 26 August 1865.

[3] 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


See also previous post about Thomas Burberry, 7 November 2018.

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,