In the Selvedge issue 75, Oliver Douglas analysed the life and currency of a much loved garment throughout the centuries; the smock...
Smocks are hardwearing ‘overalls’ that became common on English farms during the 18th and 19th centuries. As revealed by those that survive in museums of costume and rural life, these extraordinary garments combined linen, simple design, and intricate stitching. Cut from rectangular sections of cloth, they were hemmed and stitched by hand into one of three styles.
Reversible smocks were identical front and back, often with one or two buttons at the neck. Shirt smocks featured longer openings, just at the front, and usually several buttons. These basic styles were then embellished, often lavishly so, with complex smocking designs comprising gathered folds, stitched to provide increased density in areas of most wear between shape and pattern. At once both rough and richly decorative, these contradictory artefacts still inspire to this day.
Their appearance in rural art and literature reveals that they were in common usage from the second half of the 18th century and well established by the beginning of the 19th. In William Pyne’s 1805 Costume of Great Britain, a smock protects a water cart driver from filthy roadworks. Another plate shows a carter dressed in a long smock for warmth. Shepherd Holland stood proudly in his smock in the foreground of George Garrard’s famous 1804 painting of the shearing at Woburn Abbey, and smocks adorned other jobbing stockmen in the crowd. Similar garb appeared in many livestock portraits of the early 19th century, offering a concise visual means for historians and curators of today to distinguish the painting’s workers from its gentlemen.
The use of smocks as workwear began to decline rapidly in the 1850s, a change lamented by Thomas Hardy in his 1895 preface to Far From the Madding Crowd where he noted that the 'shearingsupper, the long smock-frocks, and the harvesthome' had 'nearly disappeared' as part of a wider break of continuity in local traditions, history, folklore, and what he called 'eccentric individualities'.
As smock use waned, popular characterisation of England’s working people as simple and unlettered 'folk' took off, and interest in examining the quirks of these lower social orders grew. Smocks were suddenly redolent not only of pastoral and practical value, but seen to harbour in their stitches and pleats the essence of English tradition itself, a past deemed worthy of salvage by romantics and antiquarians....
You can read this article in full in Selvedge issue 75.
Photography by Claudia Brookes.