A smock is an outer garment traditionally worn by rural workers from the early 18th century.
Today, the word smock refers to a loose overgarment worn to protect one’s clothing, for instance by a painter. The traditional smock is made of heavy linen or wool and varies from thigh-length to mid-calf length.
The fisherman’s smock is a fully reversible hardwearing sailcloth smock typically dyed indigo (or white or red colour) once worn as an outer garment by Atlantic fishermen across Cornwall, Brittany and the Channel Islands often worn over a knitted gansey.
It is now often favoured as an artist’s smock by association with the Newlyn School who often depicted characters in this dress. The spread of the smock-frock matched a general decrease in agricultural wages and living standards in these areas in the second half of the 18th century.
The smocks were cheaper than other forms of outer garments, and were both durable and washable.
By the mid-19th century, wearing of traditional smock-frocks by country laborers was dying out. As the authentic tradition was fading away, a romantic nostalgia for the rural past, led to a fashion for smocks to be worn again.
More recently, smocks have been cherished as practical working clothes for labourers, gardeners and artists – as well as becoming a fashion item in themselves.
Left: Newlyn School artist Walter Langley portrays Cornish fisherman wearing smocks in his work Between The Tides, 1901.