History of smocking: US and UK smocked clothing

Smocked clothing is one symbolic tradition of many countries and region around the world, especially in the biggest English speaking countries out there: the USA and the UK. Smocking in these countries has the same origin but started to diverse as the current of history flow that we now have interesting and unique smocked dressing like today.

Trace to the beginning of smocking, we know that this technique has a very long history. Although we don’t have the exact time since its origins are elusive, we know that this technique is most practice at England in the late 17th to 19th century. Unlike the present time when smocked clothing are using as daily wear or in important event, in the past they are most popular with the working class. Let’s not forget that elastic usage only begins in early 19th, when Thomas Hancock patented elastic fastenings for gloves, suspenders, shoes and stockings. Prior to the time, smock-frock (unique smocked outfit in England and Wales) were spreading due to 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. The pleated smocking itself was often used for cuffs, necklines, and bodices makes the activities more comfortable than other garments.

It was the Industrial Revolution that brought about the demise of the smock-frock as a utility garment. The big voluminous smocks were a hazard to the new reaping machines so they quickly became unsuitable to daily wear. As the authentic tradition was fading away, a romantic nostalgia for England's rural past led to a fashion for women's and children's dresses and blouses loosely styled after smock-frocks. By the early to mid-twentieth century, there was a resurgence in popularity of smocking for its decorative qualities with mothers creating smocked garments for special occasions such as christenings or parties. Today, parents in the US and the UK are still choosing smocked clothing for their babies because of its classical beauty yet fashionable style.

We all know that the smocking tradition in the US is much different from its relative in the UK, which easily be seen in the smocked outfit of the countries. The smocking tradition is one symbolic feature of the US, especially in the Southern region part of the country, that is inherited during the mass immigrant of the European when they discovered America. Smocking practice in the US has then separate from the mainstream in the Old Continent. Since smocking is an art form that has been handed down from generation to generation, it never halts to develop. Due to many reasons, the smocking tradition has travel through time and with culture that nowadays we still see smocked clothes as one major outfit of children in the Southern US. Firstly, smocking has become a part of the human here, is what they respect, love and preserve. And secondly, we should look into the traits of the Southern region. Southern culture has been and remains generally more socially conservative than that of the rest of the country. Because of the central role of agriculture in the economy, agricultural product like cotton became a major part of the people’s life. People respect the smocking tradition as they respect their source of life and their heritage.


Due to the difference in the development histories of the two countries, we can assume that the smocking are unique in each region. While the UK prefer the smocking plate in the bodice with complex and delicate geometric pattern, US people like the bishop dress style with smocked pattern on the neckline features their everyday life familiar symbol: their work, patriotic, animal, Santa Claus, Easter bunny, … Geometric UK pattern often covered with bullion roses and leaves and other embroidered embellishments like beads and buttons. With the complexity of embroidery and rigorous products quality requirement, the UK smocked clothing are elegant and exquisite, makes them rather be an unusual outfit for important occasions. US smocking in the other hand is less complex and more of a daily wear to the children, and the outfits are less thick than UK outfit due to the warm atmosphere of Southern region. Parents often choose clothes for their kids which smocked pattern feature the season/ holiday they are in: you can see Santa Claus, Xmas trees smocked dresses flood the streets on Christmas, while on the fall-winter season there are many kids wearing cotton flowers or harvest smocked clothing. Wearing traditional clothing is one way to honor the culture and history of the community.

Smocking has come a long way since the beginning, but still plays an important role in the modern world. When buying a smocked outfit, you know that you aren’t just buy a thing. You are buying a piece of history, a part of soul, a moment of someone’s life.