The Smock - A Classic Style that Never Goes Out of Fashion

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This year as I've browsed the chain stores – one of my favourite shopping habits – I've noticed something surprising. The smock top is back. Well, not exactly, because it's never really been away.

How long has this fashion been around in its current incarnation? Was it 2006 or 2007 that I first noticed a distinctive new, untailored style that appeared initially in the form of what was called the sack dress? It wasn't quite a smock, but was inspired by a similar concept of unstructured fullness.

Simple smock tops became huge that year. Soon everything was smocked, even short cropped jackets and sports hoodies. By today's standards the  smock tops of the mid-2000s were a bit dull, in uninspiring colours and with not quite enough gathering at the seam running across the sternum.

The smock evolved gradually from its 2006-07 incarnation, with a number of variations, from the peasant style to the flowing top with lots of gathering at a scoop neck. Present incarnations continue to play with gathering and draping, and have been influenced by fashion's move to stronger colours and abstract patterns; the peasant version is still prominent. 

But some things don't change: there is always something leisurely about the smock that perhaps harks back to its rural origins, and makes us imagine sunning ourselves in rustic pastures.

When I was researching this story, it was difficult to find examples of recent smock styles among organic and fair trade brands, either in Australia or overseas. Perhaps some of us are sick of the smock because its initial popularity was so over the top (pardon the pun) and we wore our smocks to death. Yet there are ethical styles out there - the smock above, from nixie clothing,  is made from vintage silk scarves. The gorgeous smock dress below is by 3Fish:

And this extremely cute smock top is from odd molly:

But the beauty of smocks still being fashionable – or at least not unfashionable – is that you can dig your old ones out from the back of the cupboard and brighten them up with up-to-date neckwear. And because they are a relatively recent style they're easy to find in op shops and thrift stores.

Of course, there are still lovely vintage specimens around from the 70s, like this one, from shinyredthings on Etsy.

I'm not a sewer but I imagine the smock style would be relatively easy to make as it's less tailored than conventional shirts and doesn't have a collar.

This enterprising blogger refashions men's work shirts into smocks by cutting off the collar and gathering the neck, and replacing the original sleeves with a puffy sleeve in a contrasting fabric. The results have a distinctive crafted elegance.

History of the smock top

Early smocks were worn by male peasant farmers in rural Britain from the early eighteenth century onwards. They were made from heavy wool or linen, and were more or less dresses – some a kind of 'shirt dress' with buttons down the chest, as per the example below – or coats, with buttons all the way down. Embroidery was added to the design in the nineteenth century (all of this illustrating that gendered fashion is a cultural construct!).

The male smock had in turn been inspired by the chemise, a loose undergarment worn by both men and women in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards.

Yoked cotton smocks were popular with pregnant women from the 1940s (and possibly earlier), and of course there was the popular swagger-style coat of the 1950s, which was loose and untailored.

But smock tops for women really hit their stride from the late 1960s as part of the first wave of hippie chic. Hippie, or 'gypsy', chic was inspired by traditional folkloric dress and smock tops were originally embroidered peasant blouses, often made from cheesecloth and worn with blue flared jeans. Hippie fashions like the peasant blouse were sometimes worn in direct defiance of corporate culture.

Kirsten Dunst shows a modern take on this look below (though I suspect she is making a fashion statement rather than a political one!).

As for the smock dress, brands as different as Mary Quant and Laura Ashley made it their own. The Mary Quant example below is something I'd be glad to wear today with a bit of fake tan on my white legs.

But I completely fell in love with this vintage smock dress, of unknown brand:

Back in the 70s (I am in fact quite ancient) my first smock dress – or chemise as we used to call them – still creates a feeling of fashion happiness when I think about it. It was made of cream calico, with puffed short sleeves and brightly coloured embroidery on the chest. On the cusp of adolescence, it made me feel like a fashion star. I adored myself in it.

The beauty of the smock dress is that you can belt some versions of it. And you can also tuck your smock top into your jeans for a blouson effect.

Not only that, but Alison DuBois from the hit TV show Medium convinced me that you could wear a smock top under a jacket for a more tailored look while solving the odd murder. Perhaps she was also psychic when it came to fashion!

Until next time!

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