The Smock and Politics

I am very pleased to have a chapter included in a book about politics and clothing in the nineteenth century. Just out, Political and Sartorial Styles, edited by Kevin Morrison and published by Manchester University Press, is focussed on menswear.  My chapter, ‘Smock Frock Farmer or Smock Frock Radical?’ pushes my research into smocks in a different direction, investigating how smocks were perceived, often in conflicting and contradictory ways, during the nineteenth century. Small-scale farmers who worked ‘hands-on’, alongside their labourers, became associated with the character of the ‘smock frock farmer’, coming to personify honesty and integrity. However, as growing urban populations put pressure on food production, many saw such farmers as inflexible, adhering to old systems, backward-looking and against progress.  They were sartorially signposted by their smocks, much as we think of smocks collectively today, backward, nostalgic and old-fashioned.  I discuss how ‘smock frock farmers’ were however used for political gain by different sides in many important political debates of the era.

I also consider how the smock frock was taken up as a uniform for class confrontation alongside the fustian jacket, which was commonly associated with working-class radicals. As many rural labourers faced abject poverty and starvation during the mid-1840s, their daily dress, the smock frock, became used as a political symbol of their condition. How agricultural labourers continued to express their political discontent using their appearance, throughout the second half on the nineteenth century, is investigated.  Politically, the smock frock could thus embody both class-conscious radicals and traditionalists opposed to progress. As my chapter discusses, the dichotomy between the two stances makes the metaphor of the smock frock in political identities fluid and often contradictory.

Smock Frock Veterans

A newspaper report in 1895 asked, ‘Where is the Smock-Frock?’, noting that it was a marker of the ‘old, hardy and honest peasantry’.  Forty or fifty years ago they were a common sight, but now ‘Old England’s rural garb is rarely seen!’, the railway and education, in particular, having changed rural society, not in a good way for this article.  With urban migration and the take-up of machine made suits, now labourers were ‘similitudes of semi-gentlemen … our villages are depopulated, and we have lost our happy and contented peasantry’.[1] 

As the smock declined in everyday usage during the late nineteenth century and, simultaneously, was sought out as something which summed up the disappearance of a rural way of life, the figure of the smock frock veteran emerged.  These were elderly men who had worn smocks all their lives and continued to do so until their deaths in the early twentieth century, having survived the hardships of nineteenth-century labouring work.  Now representing something of an oddity, the newspapers reported about the deaths of these men, revealing fascinating insights into ordinary labouring lives.

When Joseph Guise reached a hundred years of age in 1895 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, details about his life were related in a newspaper article coinciding with a celebration in the town.  He was presented with a photograph of himself and was to be paid gifted money in monthly instalments. Asked if he could read to display his faculties, he replied that he never could but he was still able to see very well. He had had a varied career in a mill and then a button factory, also nail making and being a waggoner, along with haulage and farming, where he lost an arm in a threshing machine accident when aged 64.  He had never smoked but was not teetotal but temperate and generally conservative in his habits including his dress.  ‘It is only upon the rarest occasions that he has discarded his smock frock, and it is over 70 years since he wore a pair of trousers’, preferring breeches and gaiters as reported by the newspaper.[2]

In Downland Glimpses of the Past, syndicated in various newspapers, elderly men told of their struggles during the hungry forties when all they had to eat was bread, or nothing at all. There was no tea, only water poured over a crust and they burnt anything they could find for fuel.  A picture of extreme poverty and destitution, they just ‘existed’, although there was work for everyone, before machinery, however poorly paid.  The smock frock was their ‘chief garment’, although by the twentieth century, its charms were emphasized with the ‘simplicity’ of dress that it engendered: ‘The beautiful old smock-frock much be-pleated and embroidered, has almost vanished, and certainly no man would dream of coming to church in one, in these days of cheap shoddy.  One sees them, now and again, on ancient gaffers – but very rarely’.[3]  By the late nineteenth century, the ‘beauty’ of the smock frock overlaid one of the main reasons that men chose to wear them in the mid nineteenth century – that they were cheap, indirectly highlighting the poverty of labourers.

Shepherd Stace

Down a leafy lane, ‘far from the blinding dust of tearing motors’, a reporter found himself at Brittenden Farm, Waldron, Sussex, where Shepherd Stace and his wife were celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary.  Now in his eighties, Stace had always worn smock frocks, ‘and would now if he could get the material’, being married in one at the time of the Crimean War.  Mrs Stace made them for him and for many others locally, her last one, made fifteen years previously, winning first prize in a competition at Cross in Hand.[4]  The report relays details about Stace’s career as a shepherd and the prizes that he won for sheep shearing.

In 1911, James Stevens, an agricultural labourer, born in 1808, died in Tring, Hertfordshire.  He had regularly walked to church wearing a green smock frock and gaiters up until his last few years and had visited London when ninety years old, still attired in a smock frock and beaver hat thus attracting attention.[5]  Likewise, the ‘last of the race of Derbyshire yeoman farmers who wore and worked in the smock frock’, John Redfern, was noted as dying in 1915 in Wirksworth, known for attending fairs and markets in his ‘quaint’ costume on a white pony.[6]  Similarly, the death of William James known as ‘Briar Bill’, as he collected briars from hedgerows for J. Perkins and Sons Nursery at Kingsthorpe, was reported in Crowfield in 1914, the newspaper noting ‘… with him vanishes from this district the ancient garb typical of the country rustic’.[7]   

John Turney/Turvey

An agricultural labourer, John Turney, was photographed in a smock when an elderly man in 1910, the newspaper reporting about his death a few years later describing him as a ‘life-long radical’ and the principal worker for the Swanbourne Baptist Chapel in Buckinghamshire.[8]  The smock he wears is relatively new and worn over his best suit, the photograph sent to Lloyd George and Herbert Leon, a local liberal politician, presumably as a statement of support from rural working men.

The longevity of these men, and their participation in their local communities over the years, gave them a rarefied status, amplified by their continual wearing of the then old-fashioned smock.  Photographed both as an oddity and as something unique, these images have also influenced how we think about the smock today, as a special garment worn by elderly men in the countryside, rather than as a piece of durable workwear commonly worn by many men in urban and rural areas, as smocks were more usually used at the height of the smock trade during the mid-nineteenth century. The smock was additionally an indicator of the material hardship of many of these men’s lives.[9] 

[1] Gloucester Journal, 6 April 1895.

[2] Worcester Journal, 30 March 1895; see also Worcestershire Chronicle, 15 July 1893, for a celebration two years previously in Bromsgrove.

[3] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 21 January 1913, p. 6, and ‘The Hungry Forties’, North Devon Journal, 13 January 1910, p. 7.

[4]Sussex Agricultural Express, 16 October 1914, p. 10.

[5] Northampton Mercury, 10 February 1911, p. 11. See Bucks Herald, 21 January 1911, p. 6 for his 103rd birthday and Yorkshire Evening Post, 16 January 1911, p. 4, which included a picture.  His picture is reproduced as the frontispiece to O. Cave, Traditional Smocks and Smocking (Mills and Boon Ltd, London, 1979) and he is also mentioned in M. Jones, ‘The Vanished Smock-Frock’, Country Life, 11 April 1857, pp. 719-20.

[6] Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 December 1915, p. 4; Newcastle Journal, 29 December 1915, p. 2.

[7] Northampton Mercury, 2 January 1914, p. 5.

[8] Northampton Mercury, 15 January 1915, p. 6.

[9] See also James Reed of Thorley, Hertfordshire, who wore a ‘beautifully embroidered’ smock frock, Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 September 1907, p. 3; and George Holden of Pinchbeck West near Spalding, ‘the last to wear the old-fashioned smock frock in the Fen country … his attachment to the smock frock was the subject of much comment in the locality’, Leeds Mercury, 23 October 1907, p. 3; also William Stinton in Hanley William, Worcestershire, ‘one of the now fast-expiring race of farmers who cling to the smock frock’, Worcestershire Chronicle, 7 November 1903, p. 8; George Hayward, died aged ninety-one, of Needham Market, Suffolk, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 September 1908, p. 3; Thomas Coster, of Newport, Isle of Wight, died aged eighty-five, the ‘last island farmer to wear a smock frock’, see Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3 March 1921, p. 3; death of William Sturmey, the last to wear the white smock-frock in the parish of Milton Abbey, see Western Gazette, 27 April 1906, p. 4; see also the death of eighty-three year old John Holmes, the last representative of the smock frock in Matlock, Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 23 June 1894.

Book Announcement!

I am very excited to announce that my book on smocks will be published on 20th May 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic.

A social history of a single garment, my cast list includes Ellen Terry, Georgia O’Keeffe, the WI, body snatchers, navvies, Molly Goddard, John Dryden and many more.

For me it is a way to delve into working-class clothing histories, so often hidden and forgotten, the preference being instead for ‘fashion’ history.  Likewise, menswear is often brushed over in writing about historic clothing, especially once the suit was dominant as masculine dress.

I feel passionate about uncovering the clothing practices of working people – around seventy per cent of the population by the 1860s.  Although not always seen as very exciting, garments thought of as practical and unchanging, I hope that my research on smocks will help to change this way of thinking.  In addition, smocks survive in numbers, unlike most working-class dress, allowing a material examination of garments to be undertaken.

I also look at smocks as emotional objects, evoking nostalgia for the rural, and a specific vision of England in the past, which is continually re-invoked through various media.  As smocks became part of children’s wear in the late nineteenth century, and remain so today, they are similarly associated with childhood sentiment and often the making of children’s clothing at home.

I am very pleased that my book is also being offered in paperback so hopefully this will make if more affordable.

Further details can be found here:

To attend my online book launch on 21st May click the link below. All welcome!

The Rebecca Riots

During the nineteenth century, when smock frocks were commonly worn by many men, they could also be used by those engaged in ‘criminal’ activity to prevent easy identification and facilitate a disguise of sorts. The Rebecca Riots were a series of protests against tolls charged to use local roads, as well as general poverty and poor conditions, in rural west Wales.  Protesters called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’ probably after a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them’ (Genesis XXIV, verse 60). In 1843 the Rebecca Riots were reported in the Gloucestershire Chronicle.  A mob of around a hundred people had assembled in Nantgarredig, near Carmarthen.  They were disguised, with their faces blackened, and wearing smock frocks, carrying implements to use as weapons.[1]  The smock frock had almost become a uniform so that the members of the ‘mob’ were no longer individuals but could act as one to carry out their aims.  It was also reported that a group of twenty-four men, some ‘dressed in smock frocks’, came down the Fishguard Road to over-run and destroy the Prendergast Toll near Haverfordwest, demolishing the gateposts and signboard.[2] 

The ‘riots’ have become infamous as the men who took part were often reported to have dressed as Rebecca, that is in women’s clothing. This ‘cross-dressing’ was also commonly used to take part in popular customs, part of the carnival ‘world-turned-upside-down’ order. Popular custom and popular protest shared characteristics such as disguise, using masks or blackened faces, and the transvestitism of men dressed in women’s clothes. Politics and protest could be integrated into customary celebrations, for example, mumming plays, May Day, Plough Monday and Whit week[3], the processions and gatherings of local communities giving an opportunity to air grievances, even if underhand and not overtly displayed.  However, in reality, the white gowns that many of the Rebecca rioters were said to have been wearing were probably smock frocks, which were widely available in Wales, especially in Cardiff and in the border region.[4]  The smock was white, loose, cheap, could stand-in for female dress and was usually commonly to hand for male labourers.  It was also symbolically complex, it’s meaning dependent on who was reading it.  As a symbol of rural poverty and oppression for some wearers, it is not unsurprising that it was used for popular protest.

[1] Gloucestershire Chronicle, 15 July 1843.

[2] Worcestershire Chronicle, 26 April 1843.

[3] K. Navickas, ‘”That sash will hang you”: Political Clothing and Adornment in England, 1780-1840’, Journal of British Studies, 49, July 2010, pp. 559-64.

[4] For example a smock frock was stolen from a house at Tredegar, see Hereford Times, 3 October 1863; and another similar case  at Llanddewi Rhydderch, near Abergavenny, see Hereford Times, 12 December 1857.  Smock frocks and hats were raced for at Abergavenny when waiting for the first sod of the Newport, Abergavenny, Hereford railway to be cut, Hereford Times, 31 January 1852.  See also M. G. Rees and C. Stevens, ‘Smocks in the Welsh Folk Museum Collection’, Medel, vol. 3, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, one in the collection from the Dolgellau region, worn by a farmer and made by his daughter, p. 35, no. 45327/1. 

The Realism of George Clausen

George Clausen (1852-1944) was an English painter who studied in London and Paris, influenced there by the naturalistic school of artists, particularly Jules Bastien-Lepage.   In the late nineteenth-century, he completed a body of work depicting English rural workers.

Clausen sketched on the spot and supported his portrayal by using photographs, catching people going about their work. He was one of the first to depict real workers, albeit in a somewhat heroic and idealised light. Reviewers of his paintings still read into his depictions ‘characteristics’ of the ‘peasantry’, one man wearing a smock frock said to represent ‘fatuous stupidity’ for a reviewer of his work shown at the Dudley Gallery.  Clausen practised this naturalism from the 1880s, providing a literal representation of the subject, presenting labourers in their particular environment, demoting any narrative in favour of true representation, documenting the authentic scene with no thought of the picturesque.  The smocks that he depicted rural labourers wearing were workwear, often short, and much plainer than the smock of popular imagination.  The man cutting mangolds in a field [see Winter Work, 1883-4, Tate Gallery, ] has a plain smock on, tied at the waist for practicalities sake, the flash of his red neckerchief alleviating the khaki tones of the scene.  Clausen painted the people that he saw around his home at Childwick Green, Hertfordshire, taking an impartial view of their lives. 

However, his focus on everyday life reflected his anti-elitist sympathies, his work part of the New English Art Club formed from 1886, which aimed to create a large exhibition where all artists could vote unlike the elite Royal Academy. [1]  Sharpley Bainbridge, a manufacturer of ready-made clothing from Lincoln was a patron of Clausen and also owned fifty paintings by Birket Foster, known for rural landscapes.  Such male entrepeneurs were the agents of change transforming the countryside, yet displayed images of that disappearing world on their walls and in their galleries.  These rural depictions were part of urban life, the demand for prints of such images coming from city dwellers. In general, they offered a salve to the pressures of modernity with representations of timelessness and tranquillity and the hope of a natural life to restore the spirits.  Then, as today, they were a fantasy, those who had to make their living from the land unlikely to see this narrative. Rural counties around London became the centre for this artistic endeavour, with rural objectification helped by the railway which linked villages to London with ease. 

By the early twentieth century, Clausen’s original realist depictions had become a national archetype of healthy outdoor labour, aspirational for all, whether living in the town or countryside.  Clausen himself, a war artist during the First World War, seemed to drift away from such representations, his later landscapes often figureless. 

[1] K. McConkey, Sir George Clausen, R.A., 1852-1944 (Exhibition Catalogue, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums and Tyne and Wear County Council Museums, Bradford and Tyne and Wear, 1980), pp. 11, 31-2 .

See also:

A Fishy Tale…

As I have noted in my previous blog about milkmen [], 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 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,

[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

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 @