THE RURAL HISTORY CENTRE includes the Museum of English Rural Life
Museum of English Rural Life


Smocks were not worn by every countryman, and the smocks of those that did would vary in material, colour and in length. The embroidered patterns on the breast were added to the smock designs during the 19th century. The working clothes worn by men changed in appearance between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Stockings, breeches, wide-cut shirt, waistcoat, jacket and hat were the common attire at the turn of the 19th century. By about 1840, working men were wearing full length trousers. Collarless shirts and waistcoats remained, though the wearing of coloured handkerchiefs tied round the neck became more common. Nearly all men wore hats, the designs of which altered frequently.

19th Century photograph of young boy wearing smockThe young labourer pictured is wearing a smock, perhaps the countryside's most distinctive garment. The smock was worn by 'country folk', living and working in rural communities, of the mid and southern counties of England, and to a limited extent, Wales. Popular in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, they fell out of fashion during the Victorian period and were considered unfashionable by the mid 19th century. The smocks in the collection of MERL are mainly considered to date from the last decades of the 19th century.

The cut of traditional smocks varies little, other than in size. The shaping of the smock to give shape, fit and fullness is creating by the smocking - gathering and stitching of fabric in various places.

There are three styles of smock:

Reversible smocks:
Reversible smockThese have a small opening at the centre of the neckline of both main body sections, with or without a button to fasten, and both sections are smocked and decorated identically so that there is no discernible front and back. The pockets are set across or vertically to the side seams.
Shirt type smocks:
Shirt type smockThese have a long front opening and fasten with several buttons
Coat type smocks:
Coat type smockThese open through the full length of the front, and are fastened with buttons.

Traditional smocks were usually made from cotton or linen. The cotton was mostly twill weave, sometimes called 'drabbet' when referring to smocks. Most smocks were in natural colours of creamy white ranging to a darker buff, with some examples in blue, green and brown. The fabric is gathered, and controlling stitches applied to the ridged surface. The smocking would generally be in a natural colour thread, although again sometimes coloured thread was used. The quality of workmanship ranges from crude to quite fine. Generally, the smocking stitches used are simple and few - mostly featherstitch, and chain with knots. It is worked with outline (rope, stem), giving rise to cable and weave and variations of vandyke, chevron and honeycomb.

Detail of smocking

Smocks catalogueAn illustrated guide to the Museum of English Rural Life's smock collection was published at the beginning of 2001. It has been compiled by Tina Oliver, an MA student in the History of Textiles and Dress at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton). It contains a catalogue of the smocks in the collection, as well as detailed descriptions of a selection of important features of traditional smocks.

Unfortunately, this is now out-of-print.

Smocks in the Online Database

A large selection of smocks in MERL's collection has been catalogued onto the Online Database. A KEYWORD search on SMOCK will find them (as well as the occassional record for Smock windmills). There are also references to publications on smocks and smocking, and some prints and photographs showing smocks being worn.

There is also more detailed information about Smocks in the INTERFACE section of the website. This can be found in the section on Farm Workers - Costume.