The aesthetic dress movement became popular during the 1870s and 1880s with the upper and middle classes. Based on artistic dress and also connected to the Rational Dress Society, members were opposed to current tight-fitting fashions which altered the body and restricted movement. As Oscar Wilde famously quipped during his lecture tours in the 1880s:
Fashion is a merely form of ugliness, so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!
Those associated with the movement, including Wilde, began to look at the smock and its free following form, elasticity and embroidery, which fitted with their ideals. Its simplicity and arts and crafts feel, was more appealing than over-elaboration and the machine-made.
Wilde made a series of lecture tours in the US and England in the early 1880s before distilling his theories into an essay entitled ‘The Philosophy of Dress’ in 1885. In this, Wilde advocated free flowing draperies and clothing falling from the shoulder rather than from the waist. Although he had classical draped Greek dress in mind as his ideal, the smock frock also fulfilled these criteria.
In a lecture that he gave in the US in 1882 entitled, ‘With Observations on Dress and Personal Adornment’, Wilde said that the only well-dressed men that he saw on his US tour were the western miners, who wore wide brimmed hats, cloaks which formed ‘a beautiful piece of drapery’ and high boots. ‘They wore only what was comfortable, and therefore beautiful’. He regretted the fact that when they made any money they would go east and put on ‘abominations of modern’ fashionable attire and he said that he asked some not to do this. They agreed but Wilde doubted that they would stick to their word.
A similar theme emerged in his 1883 lecture tour of the UK, which was an extension of Wilde’s US lectures. Depending on where he was, his allusion was translated for his audience, so instead of miners, the clogs and shawl of mill girl, the smock frock or the dress of the London milk woman, became the ideal. Several dress reformers, not just Wilde, were influenced by everyday working clothing. They saw it as being the most comfortable, practical and therefore healthiest dress, suited to that particular lifestyle. The working clothes of ordinary people were seen as ‘noble’, reflecting to a degree the class-based agenda of the dress reform movement. Whether the people who wore such clothes saw them as noble is doubtful, especially as they rushed to cast them aside in favour of fashionable ready-made clothing, this being the point in time at which the smock frock passed out of ordinary usage in the general population.
Such ideas were also scorned by newspapers reporting on Oscar Wilde’s lectures on dress in 1885. According to the ‘apostle of culture’ as a newspaper called him, it scathingly reported that he thought that the only well-dressed people were Lincolnshire plough boys and fisherwomen. One report continued, ‘Mr Oscar Wilde has now gone into the abolition of the coat and waistcoat and has pronounced himself in favour of the rustic smock-frock’. The smock frock appeared to answer the criteria for reformed dress but no longer suited the needs of the working population.
Oscar Wilde on Dress, J. Cooper, ebook, 2013, see: