Mon, 13 Jul 2020
With children’s smock dresses recently featured on the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee, we look at the inspiration for these – the 19th-century male smock frock. Researched and written by museum volunteer Alison Toplis
Watercolour painting of Thatcham from the south, including St Mary’s Church.
Illustrated is a milkmaid and a man in a smock in the foreground. Signed FJF. Late 19th century. NEBYM:1989.46.2 All images West Berkshire Museum
ASSOCIATED with the rural and workers in the countryside, particularly shepherds, museums collected the smock frock from around the turn of the 20th century as it disappeared from normal menswear.
The West Berkshire Museum holds several examples of the smock frock associated with the local area. In fact, the smock was actually a utilitarian overall for many male labourers, not just rural workers, equivalent to a work shirt, cheap to buy, frequently waterproofed and able to be washed. They were likely made in the vicinity, centres of manufacture in Reading and Abingdon, with Newbury shopkeepers selling them to local men.
In 1831, Mr Garlick, a linen and woollen-draper, silk mercer, hosiery, haberdasher, glover and laceman, advertised his shop ‘Scotland House’ in the Reading Mercury newspaper, ‘opposite the Post Office in Northbrook Street’. He sold many types of clothing and textiles to the Newbury population, including smock frocks, as well as supplying smaller shopkeepers in the
neighbourhood. A labourer in his smock chatting to a milkmaid, with her yoke and milk pails, is depicted in a watercolour illustrating Thatcham from the south in 1843 with St Mary’s Church in the background.
Although the majority of smock frocks that survive are white, they could be coloured, blue and green being popular, as well as grey and brown. The brown one illustrated right, associated with Boxford, is called a round smock. Being the same front and back, it is therefore technically reversible. The smocking at the front and back gathered in the fabric and gave it elasticity so although they were sold in S, M, L, one size could fit many different body types. This smock, as was usual, has embroidery on the collar, shoulders and either side of the smocked ‘box’, this one worked in simple lozenge shapes.
Likewise, another relatively modest round smock in the museum’s collection may have been bought in a local shop. The embroidery is worked in contrasting thread using feather stitch, a common stitch for smock embellishment, which was relatively quick for needlewomen to work.
Although most smocks were worn as work overalls, more ornate examples also survive, perhaps made for special occasions. A white one in the collection is associated with a farmer from Eastbury, with fine smocking, highly embellished with embroidery.
There are embroidered hearts on the shoulder panels so maybe this was especially worked for a wedding. The myths around smocking suggest that certain symbols embroidered on smocks showed the occupation of their wearers. The ornate examples for weddings may have had personal symbols worked on them. The many bought already embroidered and made up were a matter of individual choice for their male purchasers.
Another type in the museum’s collection is a ‘Sussex’ smock, associated with the county of Sussex but also worn more widely in the South East. These smocks were similar to the contemporary male shirt, with small panels of fine smocking at the collar, shoulders and cuffs, with little other embroidery.Since the 19th century, the suit, and its silhouette, has come to dominate menswear so completely that it seems odd to think that many working men wore long-skirted garments as their everyday clothing. But smocks were hardwearing, useful, with large pockets, and often reversible, as well as being decorative, this aspect of them most often prized today.
Pictures courtesy of West Berkshire Museum