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.