A chemise or shift was the foundation of most multilayered garments. As such it varied from utilitarian to decorative according to type of material used and visibility. It was used in various forms from early 10th century to 15th century Italian through to the end of our period. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was usually the only piece of clothing that was washed regularly.
The earliest smocks were simple shirt-like garments, and came into being in Anglo-Saxon times. Many European countries also used smocking on their garments. They gradually developed in the 18th and early 19th century into a fuller garment with much more room to move while working. The fullness was gathered in tubes or reeds at both back and front. These garments, known as ‘smock frocks’, were worn in England by the shepherds, carters and wagoners in the 1700s. Not much is recorded of the wearing apparel of the working class up to this period, but occasionally in paintings of rural life one can see them.
Smocks were made of fine linen; many of the better quality smocks were made of what we now call "handkerchief-weight" linen. These smocks hung to just about knee to calf-length, on average. There were several varieties of smocks worn in the 16th century; below is a listing of the main types.
THE ROUND SMOCK as worn by the girls of Woodend School is considered to be the most traditional. It usually has a peter-pan collar and a generous neck opening in either front or back. This made it very easy to slip on. There was smocking at the centre back, front, upper sleeves and wrist. The round frocks were reversible and were not washed until both sides were dirty. They were mostly knee-length or shorter. SHIRT SMOCKS are thus named because they are similar to a nobleman’s shirt and have a short opening at the front. They are usually shorter than round frocks.
COAT SMOCKS were worn mainly by the Welsh shepherds. They were buttoned at the front and had a large, cape-like collar to protect the wearer from the wet and misty conditions in Wales. They were knee length or longer and usually made of wool.
The tradition of wearing a smock had declined by the 1800's, and it was rare to see them being worn after this time. It was about then that smocking became a fashion statement on tea gowns, children’s wear and nightdresses. When lawn tennis became popular in the 1800's, bodices were smocked with silk and caught at the waist by a sash. Today, once more, smocking is very popular on babies’ and children’s wear.