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How to wear . . . smocks
Workwear with attitude, by our Fashion Editor

We love the rugged 'working man' look but a boiler suit isn't the only option for the guy who gets dirty.

Boilersuit and Smock . .
Boiler suit or smock?
The smock is on display at Steyning museum

Put on a boiler suit, a hard hat and some chunky boots. A high vis jacket might help and hey, you’ve got the look. A man ready for some real hard work. There’s nothing like it . . .

Wrong! You forgot about the smock. No boiler suit ever said ‘man at work’ better than a smock.

Leather boots and a brimmed hat to doff at your superiors are essential smock accessories. If you have leather gaiters, that’s good but string tied below the knees of your trousers will keep the mice out. Add a red cotton neckerchief and you are ready for some serious sheep shearing, ploughing a field or replacing a thatched roof.

The difference is that boiler suits are for grafting alongside those fuel-guzzling, roaring, smoking, new-fangled machines. Smocks are for sheer muscular toil, with only a shire horse to call on when the going gets tough. The choice is yours – are you a pre-industrial revolution man or is diesel oil your signature perfume?

It's so simple, ladies

Speaking as a woman, it pains me to admit that it's my job to make the smock. Then he gets to wear it, along with the trousers.

I can’t pretend that women's equality occurred to many men in smocks. Most didn't get the vote themselves until 1918. There were some tough old guys around Sussex who wore smocks as late as the 1920s. Whether even they would have approved of me having the vote - well, I doubt it.

So I had better get out the sewing machine and make my man his smock. Oh, I forgot. Sewing machines are so post-industrial. I’ll have to stitch the whole lot by hand. Where are those candles?

To prove that I am a woman to be proud of, I’ll have to embroider it too. The chest and shoulders (back and front), the collars and cuffs, will all need to be covered in pretty stitches like my mother should have taught me. But she didn’t.

At least I don’t have to mess around with paper patterns. It’s all so simple ladies, as Alice Armes tells us in her little book, English Smocks (first edition1930). Choose a tough natural linen or calico. Cut it three times the length measured from his neck to his knees. Use feet and inches, silly. Who ever heard of a metric smock? If he's slim, use 36 inch wide fabric or go for wider. And give him a whole lot of gather.

It’s a smock, so gathering is what it’s all about. Embroidery holds the smocking together and the threads are usually the same colour as the fabric. There is no elastic involved and no Vogue styling. Cut the fabric into thirds, two for the front and back, plus one for the other bits. This is what it looks like on the floor, all cut out:
Smock Pattern

Then gather the gathered bits in tiny verticle lines. Embroider it and sew it all together. Voila! It’s the same at the front as the back. When he comes home splattered in cow pats, he can turn his smock around before you put his dinner on the table. Now it looks like you’ve only just washed it. Magic.

Just one more thing. He could do with a spare smock for the wash. Plus he needs a smock made out of white cotton for Sunday best . . .

Do you know what? I can't help it. I'm just bursting to scream something loud and offensive after all this:

"Votes for Women!"

Oops. I seem to have smashed a window.

Sussex smock 1909

Some Facts About

The frock
I have to be frank about it. The smock was often called a frock, or a frock smock. It's not as bad as you think. You've heard of the man's frock coat. Monks and priests wore frocks until they were called habits and cassocks, which is why priests can still be defrocked. Frocks were menswear, until suddenly frocks were for women. That's the English language for you.

The embroidery on smocks became a form of folk art. In the early 1800s, dense stitching patterns began to reflect a man's trade, so it is said. He went to a hiring fair in his best smock and an employer could 'read' the man's skills by the embroidery on his smock. Working men got married in new white smocks before brides began to wear white. The tradition of wearing white smocks to church continues with the thin cotton versions worn by choirs.

Arts and Crafts
William Morris wore a smock. When town and city people came to see smocks as quaint old things, Morris revived them. The Arts and Crafts movement was making a political statement. Smocks got caught in machinery, so wearing a smock showed a proud craftsman's rejection of industrialisation. Some artists still wear them.

National dress
Gentlemen never wore smocks, at least not until William Morris said they were the latest thing. Therefore, smocks could be the best national dress option for English men, unless you think Ivanhoe or Robin Hood take the prize. Men in tights or men in smocks? By the way, pirates don't count.


Billy Hoad: His Diaries
and Reflections

A picture of William Hoad wearing a work smock in the style common around Steyning - without the heavy embroidery on the collar, shoulders, chest and cuffs and with less smocking over the chest.

Priddey Family History
Old photographs of the Priddey family looking fearsome in their smocks.

The Museum of Rural Life
A page with lots of smocks in different styles.

This entry calls them smock frocks. Never mind.

Glasgow Museums
A best smock, heavily embroidered.

Morgaine le Fay
Close up pictures of a Sussex smock with not so much embroidery.

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