The European Smock

In North Europe, Smocks have been worn by rural labourers as protective overgarments for hundreds of years. Smocks are worn over the wearer’s clothes, as can be seen in the photograph of a young farm labourer in Norfolk (Fig 1.)Cotton is usually used, mostly twill, also known as ‘drabbet’ or linen to make the garment. Although green and blue smocks can also be found in MERL’s(The Museum of English Rural Life) collections, most smocks are naturally coloured, ranging from creamy white to dark brown. (Fig.2)

Smocks are largely recognisable by their smocking and embroidery (Fig.3). Although they vary in detail, these elements provide decoration and comfort. Smocking provides stretch and ease of movement, allowing the smock to better fit the wearer. A smocking is a decorative technique in which wide strips of material are gathered into a regular fold. A popular sewing pattern known as honeycomb is sometimes used to describe this style of work. It involves shaping the garment so that it controls the fullness at the cuffs, shoulders, front, and back necklines, while leaving the areas around them loose and free(Fig.4).

The basic construction of smocks during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century (and beyond) was the same: rectangles, squares, and triangles. They were made out of standard linen lengths. Nevertheless, there may have been regional variations. Traditional smocks typically have the same cut regardless of length. Typically, a garment would have either a yoke or shoulder straps, as well as a collar, cuffs, smocking, and pockets. At the hem of some smocks, side seams were split.

British farmers were particularly prone to smocks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Patterns on smocks often indicated which profession the wearer performed, for example, a carter might wear a wheel shape on their garment, while a shepherd might wear a crook.

Smocks also changed in style throughout the early modern period in England depending on the styles of outer clothing worn. Necklines could be high such as on the smock above(Fig.6), or fashionable bodices and gowns that had necklines cut horizontally off the shoulder during the mid-seventeenth century.Unfortunately, very few seventeenth-century English women’s smocks survive in museum collections. So it is hard to establish a chronology of styles during this period. For women’s and children’s clothing during the mid-20th century, smocks became popular, especially for girls’ dresses. Today, smocking is still a key feature of both adult and children’s clothing, particularly dresses and tops.

Reversible smock:

Both the front & back of these have a small opening in the centre. There is no distinguishable front or back because both sections are smocked and decorated identically

Shirt Smock: 

Several buttons fasten the long opening in front.


The Museum of English Rural Life. Online at (retrieved on 26th Jan 2022)

Textile Research Centre. Online at (retrieved on 24th Jan 2022)

Sarah A. Bendall. Online at (retrieved on 27th Jan 2022) Online at (retrieved on 28th Jan 2022)

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