Today, a smock is understood as a variant of an apron – it is a loose over-garment worn to protect one’s clothing. A frock is a now outdated term for a dress of any length or style. Both terms may sound like something quite frumpy to wear. Yet, I have the contrary to show as proof that a smock-frock can be fashionable. Our modern understanding of many items we take for granted in common living are often sorely lacking in a realization of full historical context. “Dig a little deeper” is my intuitive response after being an academic researcher for many years!
In sewing, using vintage patterns is a good practice for opening one’s eyes to facets of fashion history previously either unknown or forgotten, as they leave enticing trails of interest in bygone definitions. Recently, an old original 1938 Marian Martin pattern design I acquired and used for my early spring sewing has made me realize a new term – the smock-frock. For as simple and unassuming as this newest dress project is (daily wear vintage clothes in comfy cotton are so handy to have in my wardrobe), it has certainly led me to discover yet another aspect from the annals of fashion. Nevertheless, whether or not this dress taught me something along the way to completion, any dress that ends up being as easy to wear as a nightgown yet looks street worthy chic – with pockets as big as a small purse – is a winner in my estimation!
FABRIC: a printed cotton
PATTERN: Marian Martin #9602, year 1938
NOTIONS NEEDED: all I needed was thread and some bias tape for some simple neckline finishing
TIME TO COMPLETE: This was a quick project, made in about 7 hours and finished in February 2022
THE INSIDES: I merely stitched over the edges a few times to prevent any fraying, and trimmed any fly-away threads from the fabric for clean but semi-raw edges
TOTAL COST: On sale at my local JoAnn Fabrics store, buying 3 yards of this fabric cost me about $27
Happily, the seller that I purchased from studied up for the listing and included information from an old newspaper ad which was selling my same pattern. Thus, that person’s amazing preliminary research is the only reason I know why Marian Martin no.9602 is called “a smock-frock” design to begin with. Now, to appropriately continue my terminology tirade from above, a smock-frock is basically a centuries old garment primarily worn by British laborers and working class people. Only in the last 150 years did it turn into a comparatively decorative garment to wear on its own for children’s play and ladies’ housework. Smock-frock garments often had extensive embroiderd hand stitched work (for an alliteration of the word) to control the overall generous fit in precise places on the garment. This type of embellishment became highly decorative between the Victorian times and the 1930s, being more ornamental than a pure design element, and its popularity muddied the understanding of the term smock-frock.
To make things more confusing, in the history of the clerical world, a frock is an outer garment…but so is an apron. The Wikipedia page says, “It is uncertain whether smock-frocks are ‘frocks made like smocks or ‘smocks made like frocks’ – that is, whether the garment evolved from the smock, the shirt (or underdress) of the medieval period, or from the frock, an over garment of equally ancient origin.” All this boils down to the fact that this late 1930s smock frock was a meld of the words, besides being a relatively modern take on two very ancient type of garments. I am surprised this garment-related form of the term was even still in use enough for 1938 to add it onto the pattern description. It is so close to what I would term a plain housedress, or even a hostess dress (which I explain in this post here) if sewn up of a decently nice material. Smocking – as a style of stitch – has continued to be popular beyond the 1930s primarily on cultural inspired clothing or novelty designs as well as children’s clothes.
I am wondering if the use of this term here is because Marian Martin designs were something catered to smaller, rural town residents even though the parent company to the pattern line was based in New York City. Living away from a big town can be someplace where old terms are still commonplace, so a smock-frock would have been well known amongst agricultural worker’s families of the 1930s. I do take note that the cover illustration portrays a young woman modeling. I wonder if the design of this pattern would have been something that the older generations would have gravitated to before the youth of 1938 would have. You can clearly see the Depression Era thrifty sensibilities in the fact that this pattern could be used to make several different designs – dresses with two differing necklines and closures, or an apron. There are many possibilities here! Marian Martin is a distant cousin to the lines of Anne Adams, Alice Brooks, American Weekly, and Laura Wheeler (needlework) – all patterns were owned by the same parent company at one point or another (see more info on that here).
Having sewn a handful of patterns from this group of mail order patterns (my previous Marian Martin posted here, an American Weekly dress posted here, and an Anne Adams pinafore posted here), I have found them to generally run on the larger fitting size. This one did not disappoint. It was marked as a bust 32”, hips 35” and so I graded in 4 inches to bring it up to my size according to the instruction’s chart. As it turned out, I had to pinch out a total of 4 inches overall as I was fitting this dress to myself during construction. The realization of that blows my mind at just how large this pattern’s size was…lucky thing I was able to save this project from drowning me in fabric! The hemline even came down to the ground on me according to the “dress length” as given by the pattern. Refitting all the princess and side seams, as well as re-cutting the neckline and armscye made this easy-to-make design a bit more time-consuming. It was still pretty simple to sew these adjustments because there was no pattern matching to worry about and I was fitting it along the way to completion.
I knew ahead of time that the busy print would conceal the smock-frocks details, but they are simple and few so I was okay with that happening. There are princess seams which divide the back and the front into a six panel dress. There are big, generous pockets tucked in between seams to the front side panels just at hip length. Then, the sleeves have puffed caps and a box pleat at the outer centered hem. Finally, two ties come out from above the front princess seam just above the pockets so as to bring in the waist and shape the dress by tying in the back. The attached ties make this dress reminiscent of a hostess dress, as I mentioned above (and posted about here). It is the fact I have the ties – and the way I gave up fitting the dress to me any further after bringing it in by 4 inches – which lets me get away with no zipper or buttons or closure. Contrary to the pattern, I cut the center back on the fold and lowered the V neckline so that this was an easy-peasy slip-on garment.
A word or two needs to be said about my ascot neck scarf. I made that, too! It was cobbled together into being a long, tapered rectangle of two scraps leftover from making this sheer chiffon 1950s redingote. A small French seam goes down the center to connect the two scraps, then went to my local sewing room and used their serger (overlocker) to stitch a tiny rolled hem edge finish. I love making my own scarf! It is yet another little but very useful outlet I recently discovered to use up scraps of lightweight material. My neck is often chilly in both air conditioning and cool spring or fall days. Also, my hair styles need protection from wind and rain, so I use sheer scarves a lot in all seasons. This handmade version was just the thing I needed in lieu of a necklace or contrast belt to give my dress a splash of something extra. It kept my neck cozy for these pictures, too, as the sunshine was warm that day but spring is still slow in coming here. The neckline is pretty basic otherwise. A vintage stick pin keeps my scarf in place on my dress, here tied in the manner of an ascot.
My fabulous shoes bring my dress way above its original humble smock-frock designation, but they are such a fun pairing here I couldn’t resist! They are part of my latest and greatest shoe splurge purchase. Miss L Fire Company was going out of business a few months ago so I *had* to snatch up several styles I have longed under deep clearance prices. These are the popular Miss L Fire “Clarice” heels, made of color blocked leather suede panels with tie ankle straps. These color blocked beauties make me forget I have heels on, but really elevate my outfit, as well as anything else I pair with them. Just as I did with my scarf, I wanted to channel everything I love about the panache that 1930s street wear displays with killer accessories. Even if this is just a homely cotton dress, I can show how versatile it is my making it fancier than it really is! A great pair of shoes always helps in such a situation. Believe me, there is no better company for statement footwear with high quality and superior comfort. Miss L Fire’s offerings are so well made and so comfortable but so standout chic, it is a true loss that they are relegated to the second hand market now.
There is so much more I could have written in regards to smock-frocks, but I didn’t want to end up boring anyone and end up with too long of a post. I have just found so much depth of interest in the history behind this basic little dress I whipped together! What I didn’t mention above, is the irony of how it combines the masculine (through the working man’s shirt smock) with the feminine (a frock dress) in such a unique way. Even still, the supreme mockery to my 1938 incarnation of a house-frock is the fact that it turned out so appealingly cute. It is meant to be so utilitarian as to not give a darn about keeping it pristine yet I will be sad the first time it gets marred. I don’t want to destroy it too quickly, but I also don’t want to let that hold me back from enjoying this dress whenever I want. This is why I made it – to be worn, appreciated, and practical. The print is so busy it shouldn’t be too noticeable when I do eventually end up staining, tearing, or otherwise using my dress as the pattern intended. If this was going to be a true smock-frock, it was going to have to live up to its name and be a practical, work-horse kind of piece for me. I always need these kind of clothes. They truly do take a beating, though, but I think appear none the worse for their wear. This mid-1940s dress is my go-to well-worn housedress, next to this cranberry cotton shirtdress, and my “Dust Bowl” Burda dress. I am happy to have a real-deal 1930s house dress now, as I have only had ones from the 40’s until now!
I really hope to sew with this pattern again in the future using yet another charming cotton print, so this is not a one-hit-wonder here. Perhaps next time I will choose the short, hip-length smock version that buttons down the back and has the Peter Pan collar. Maybe I will just sew another dress version because it so handy and darn comfortable. I also want to try out the “Edith Smock” from “Pattern Union”. It is a zero-waste design with amazing details and a style strongly reminiscent of working smocks of old, only with large roomy pockets and billowy sleeves for the modern romantic in you.
I hope you enjoyed this little post on my smock-frock, and learned about a new facet of fashion history. Please, give this post proper credit if you share elsewhere what you learned about here. Also, remember to stay inquisitive and keep finding answers to the interesting questions of your own making. Perhaps you will uncover something that will fascinate, teach, and entertain you just as much as I have found in the process of creating and wearing my smock-frock!