by Pat Mitchell
Updated 11th January, 2015.

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Blue Mountains, Australia

The word ‘smock’ is an old English word for a shift or chemise, hence the word ‘smocking’ came to be applied to the ornamental gathering of the necks of these garments.
The earliest smocks were simple shirt-like garments and came into being in Anglo-Saxon times. Many European countries also used smocking on their garments. They gradually developed into a fuller garment with much more room to move while working. The fullness was gathered in tubes or reeds at both back and front. These garments, known as ‘smock frocks’, were worn in England by the shepherds, carters and wagoners in the 1700s. Not much is recorded of the wearing apparel of the working class up to this period but occasionally in paintings of rural life one can see them.
Most smocks were made from a rough homespun and home woven linen or wool. They were quite heavy and provided extra warmth for the wearers while protecting their everyday clothes. The cut of these garments was simple and the basic sections were squares or rectangles. There were three styles - the Round Smock (Frock), the Shirt Smock and the Coat Smock.

THE ROUND SMOCK as worn by the girls of Woodend School is considered to be the most traditional. It usually has a peter-pan collar and a generous neck opening either front or back. This made it very easy to slip on. There was smocking at the centre back, front, upper sleeves and wrist. The round frocks were reversible and were not washed until both sides were dirty. They were mostly knee length or shorter.
In Chapter 1 of ‘Rosamund’s tuckshop’ we meet Rhoda Kane and Sonia Raymond at lunch when they are discussing the uniform they are to wear at Woodend school, which was just opening as an annex to the Cliffend School at Brighton. "We’re to wear uniform ... Khaki breeches like those the land girls had during the war, and smocks."

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smocks1.jpg (12948 bytes) Elsie gives a good description of them in Chapter 5 of ‘Rosamund’s Tuckshop’ ... "the new gardening mistress, coming from a survey of the grounds, was dressed in the same uniform that Daffodil had been wearing; khaki breeches, smocked yellow tunic to match, long boots, and soft khaki hat, with a glimpse of red hair beneath."
In Chapter 2 of ‘Rosamund’s Castle’ we meet Benedicta when she finally gets to school after her accident. She has just arrived and has arrayed herself in her new outfit for the first time. "She wore yellow breeches and long brown boots, a yellow smock hanging almost to her knees, and a soft slouch hat to match ... She stood gazing dreamily down at the beautiful lawn, where girls in yellow smocks where working in groups under the trees."

Later in ‘New girls at Woodend’ Chapter 5 we meet Jean-Ann when she arrives at school wearing her working outfit. " .. The stranger wore the khaki breeches and lose smock, the soft hat and the long boots, which were the gardening outfit of Woodend."
In Chapter 8 Miss Rainey tells the new juniors "They are Sussex round-frocks, made on the pattern of the working clothes of old Sussex shepherds, up on the hills. Smocked across the chest and fastening at the back, they are exactly like the shepherds’ smocks ... You should feel it is an honour to wear traditional garments."

SHIRT SMOCKS are thus named because they are similar to a nobleman’s shirt and have a short opening at the front. They are usually shorter than round frocks

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COAT SMOCKS were worn mainly by the Welsh shepherds. They were buttoned at the front and had a large cape-like collar to protect the wearer from the wet and misty conditions in Wales. They were knee length or longer and usually made of wool.
The gathering on the smocks began to be embroidered. It is not known why but perhaps the fullness of the coarse material blousing out from the neckline was uncomfortable. Smocking or embroidery held the gathers close to the chest. By the end of the 1700s the gathers were embroidered by a strong linen thread the colour of the smock, and the embroidery varied from area to area. Mostly natural colours from cream to dark brown, the type of embroidery indicated the wearer’s occupation. Leaves and trees for a woodsman, crooks and sheep for a shepherd, crosses for a gravedigger. Feather stitch was the most common.

The tradition of wearing a smock declined by the 1800s and it was rare to see them being worn after this time. It was about them that smocking became a fashion statement on tea gowns, children’s wear and nightdresses. When lawn tennis became popular in the 1800s, bodices were smocked with silk and caught at the waist by a sash. Today once more mocking is very popular on babies’ and children’s wear.

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(This article first appeared in The Abbey Guardian for April, 1998.)

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