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? An English countryman of the 18th century would be amazed to see how they have evolved through time!
THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD SMOCKS
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.
In the 18th century, through linguistic and fashion evolution, the word “smocks” was then used to name the large cotton or linen blouses worn as working garments by British peasants and farmers. By extension, it also described the technique employed to create them.
Square shaped, to avoid having to create a paper pattern and to limit fabric waste, the smocks, that is, the method of pleating fabric in a regular manner and then embroidering it, was an efficient way of reducing fabric width while maintaining elasticity and freedom of movement.
The fabric excess, in particular at the wrists, necklines and bust, was thus meticulously pleated. The evenly gathered pleats were then maintained with embroideries.
Although decorative, these geometrical or figurative embroideries were first and foremost functional. Peasants had to be comfortable and at ease in their clothes to perform physical tasks on farms and fields.
Gradually each village and community defined its own fabric color code and embroidery symbols. Derby was famous for its blue smocks while Herefordshire preferred green.
These garments were passed down from father to son, mended and reworn until they could be patched no more. Very little of these have survived.
Smocks of an English peasant, embroidery detail, 1830-1869, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
EVOLUTION OF SMOCKS : A PREROGATIVE OF THE UPPER CLASS
However, as time passed, slowly but surely, peasant workers abandoned this traditional outfit. With the Industrial Revolution, machine made garments became widely available and inexpensive so that even the poorer classes could afford them. Besides with the development of farm machinery, heavy smocked blouses became very unpractical not to say dangerous when maneuvering tools.
As rich embroidered decors became the prerogative of the upper society, the cost of smocked blouses increased sharply.Having left the rural world, smocks gradually became very fashionable among the Victorian elite. They were most worn by adults.
Initially worn as underwear, they became widely worn for daywear and very popular upon dresses. Embroidery and smock pattern influenced by Parisian fashion were frequently featured in magazines.
ENTERING THE CLOSETS OF CHILDREN
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 reproduced the drawing and met huge success. Since then smocks haver never left children’s wardrobes.
They 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.
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 also worthy to note that with the end of corsets, smocks were once again used for women’s underwear.
EMBLEM OF THE UPPER CLASS & OF ROYAL FAMILIES
It is around 1920, that smocked dresses really became tied with good taste and upper class attire. For children, they were the emblem of classic chic style. To the point that they became the typical outfit of royal families.
Still worn today by royal princesses, 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
Our brand thus had the honor of dressing princess Charlotte of Cambridge, daughter of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
For one of her very first official trip, a ten day visit as part of a royal tour to Canada in 2016, Princess Charlotte graciously wore an elegant light lavender blue smocked dress with coral shade embroideries upon the bodice. This dress was created by our designer in our very own atelier and gifted it to the royal family by one of our former British partners. Read more and shop the dress.
Symbol of elegance, holding a touch of old world bringing back sweet nostalgic childhood memories, this precious garment continues to delight little girls all around the world.
To learn more about the origin of smocks, please read the following article : The smock Fock : The Journey from Fieldwork to the Pages of Vogue
We also invite you to read the book the "Treasury of Smocking Designs" by A.S. Holland.
* The images presented in this post come from the blog http://les8petites8mains.blogspot.com/2009/09/mode-adulte-mode-enfant-3-la-robe.html.
They are not to be used for commercial needs. However if the authors of these images are against their publishing, the images will be removed upon demand.The pleasure of sharing on the internet is also to share one's sources with clear captions. If you use these images please mention the blog http://les8petites8mains.blogspot.com. Thank you.