The history of smocks
If smocks are now closely linked to children’s fashion, their origin is of another nature…. Did you know that the precious smocks decorating little girls dresses, were, until quite recently, part of men’s wardrobes?
The exact origin of the word “smocks” remains a mystery to this day. It is said that the term was first coined to name the linen shirts worn by men and women during the Elizabethan era as undergarments. Gradually its definition shifted and came to be applied to the ornamental embroidered gatherings around the collars of these shirts.
Then in the 18th century, through linguistic and fashion evolution, the word “smocks” was used to name the large cotton or linen blouses worn as working garments by the British peasants and farmers.
Square shaped, to avoid using a paper pattern and limit fabric waste, the smocks, that is, the technique of pleating fabric in a regular manner and then embroidering it, was an efficient way of reducing the fabric width while maintaining a certain elasticity.
The fabric excess, in particular at the wrists, necklines and bust, was meticulously pleated and maintained with embroideries.
Although decorative, these geometrical or figurative embroideries were first and foremost functional. The smocked blouse thus enabled a freedom of move and protection against the cold and rain.
Each village or community had its own fabric color and embroidery symbols.
Smocks of an English peasant, embroidery detail,1830-1869, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
However, as time passed, slowly but surely, peasant workers abandoned this traditional outfit. Indeed as rich embroidered decors became the prerogative of the upper society, the cost of smocked blouses increased sharply.
After the First World War, this garment was no longer worn by farmers and peasants.
Yet the story does not end there. Having left the rural world, smocks gradually took place among the Victorian elite.
It was a children’s book illustrator, who first dared to draw a little girl wearing a dress with a smocked panel.
Illustration from The Birthday Book, by Kate Greeaway, 1880, Editions George Routledge & Sons on illuminated-books
The famous Liberty London store, immediately reproduces the mdoel which had a huge success. Since then it has never left children’s wardrobes.
Smocks rapidly conquered all of children’s garments from bloomers to skirts, shirts and of course dresses. Mothers and grandmothers soon learned how to smock for their little ones.
Then with the end of corsets, smocks were also used for women’s underwear.
From left to right : Image from La Mode illustrée published on the 22nd March 1896 - embroidered dresses for babies - boutique Au Fil du temps on Ebay - Family of the artist, Pierre et Jean Renoir painted by Auguste Renoir, 1896
It is around 1920, that smocks dresses really became an emblem of a chic traditional style for children of the upper society. With its Peter Pan collar, puffed sleeves and bow in the back, it became the typical outfit of children from royal families all over European courts.
Still worn today by royal princesses, such as Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, smocks are back into fashion due to a renewed interested for high quality traditional clothing.
From left to right Suri Cruise in 2008 - Princess Louise of Belgium in 2009 - Princess Isabella of Denmark in 2009 on purepeople.com
Symbol of elegance, holding a touch of old world bringing back sweet nostalgic childhood memories, this precious garment has a growing success among little girls all around the world.
Charlotte sy Dimby Netti dress
To learn more about the origin of smocks, please read the following articles :
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