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.

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