Caught by the River

The Fisherman’s Smock

Ben Langworthy | 29th August 2016

This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of Ernest Journal. Many thanks to Jo Keeling for allowing us to reprint.


Beloved of artists, crafters and seafarers alike, the smock is as useful today as it has ever been. But how did a simple, hardy overall become an icon of coastal life?

Old-fisherman (1) Stereoscopic photo: Peter Cresswell. Image couresy of the Hastings Fishermen’s Museum

Words: Ben Langworthy

I grew up in southwest England, a landscape synonymous with farming and fishing. The clothing of these twin trades formed the uniform of my childhood; and along with wax jackets, rubber boots and Guernsey sweaters, the fisherman’s smock has remained a staple of my wardrobe ever since. My dad, a furniture maker by trade, is rarely to be seen out of one. His are invariably tattered, frayed and patched, with their pockets long since torn away. For him, the smock is what it has been for centuries: the original workman’s overall.

The smock is infinitely versatile as a workman’s garment; it protects against the elements and its loose fit affords ease of movement, while its canvas construction allows it to be layered over shirts or sweaters, making it useable throughout the year. Its survival is perhaps in part due to this versatility, but what of its origins? A clue to this can be found in its name, although the term ‘smock’ is something of a misnomer since the fisherman’s smock is, in fact, not a smock at all. It borrows the term from its rural cousin: the smock-frock, with whom it has a shared origin. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, these knee-length working garments, made from linen, cotton, hemp or wool, were commonly worn by agricultural workers across England and Wales. The term ‘smock’ comes from the technique of smocking, a gathering together of fabric at the neck, shoulders and cuffs, held in place by surface embroidery that allowed it to stretch for ease of movement.

Historic examples of working people’s clothing are very rare. Surviving garments tend to be those of the wealthy, made from exotic materials and carefully stored. Working clothes were worn until they fell apart, and as a result, few originals survive.

Fisherman’s smocks, or slops, as they were commonly known, were made as part of a cottage industry; often sewn by the fishermen’s wives in their homes, using patterns passed down by word of mouth, so historic reference points are hard to come by. But I did find reference to a sailor’s slop dating from the 17th century in the Museum of London. Tatty, heavily patched and repaired, this amazing survivor offers invaluable clues to the story of this iconic piece of sailors’ clothing. It shares similarities both with the smock frock and with its coastal descendants. While much shorter in the body, it has gathered fabric at its collar, neck, shoulders, and shirt cuffs; a clear link to its land-lubbing relative. It also features a fairly square, loose body and a high neck closure, with a small collar that could be folded up to protect against the elements. Then there is the fabric itself – a linen-canvas woven of flax. But there are more than 200 years between this early ancestor and the smock we know today. So where to look to fill in the gap? One answer lies not in industry, but in art.

To find more detail of the slop we have to look to a generation of painters who, in the late 19th century, were drawn by the unique light at a small fishing port on the west Cornish coast. The Newlyn School, as they became known, would inadvertently be responsible for recording many aspects of working life in the region, from customs to clothing. The fishermen, wearing a smock or ‘jumper’ as it was locally known, would become a mainstay of their paintings, and the garment itself would become the clothing of choice for those very same painters. It was the perfect painter’s overall. Wearing one associated you with the new bohemian identity of the Newlyn School, so once again, the smock became about identity. To this day, we still associate it with artists and artisans.
This time also saw photography become cheaper and widely accessible to the masses. Like the painters, early photographers would document the everyday lives of fishermen across the British Isles. These paintings and photographs offer a tantalising glimpse into the lives of working people at the turn of the century; a world that had, up until this time, gone largely undocumented. They also give us several fantastic reference points for how the smock had developed in the intervening 100 years.

The smock varied greatly from coast to coast, evolving to fit the specific needs of different communities. In parts of Scotland in the late 19th century, you would have seen knee-length versions called doppers. In southern England, versions with shirt-like collars were especially popular, while on the east and southwest coasts, the more recognisable funnel-necked slops were commonplace. One of the more unusual variations could be found in the southeast, around Hastings. Turn of the century photographs reveal fishermen wearing overalls closely resembling those worn 100 years earlier: their smocks were baggier than those found elsewhere and had gathered pleats around the neck and shoulders, with shirt-like cuffs. They also featured aspects of the more modern designs, such as a standing funnel neck, much like those found on the slops of the southwest. These south coast smocks offer an insight into how the smock as we know it may have evolved; the missing link between the old and the modern garment.

Despite these regional variations, for the most part the 19th century, the smock had become much simpler. The body was still loose but much less so than previously, and the pleated smocking and shirt cuffs were replaced by a simple three-quarter length sleeve. These smocks bear a striking resemblance to those made today, though they had no pockets, which were dangerously prone to snagging near tools and machinery. In fact, these smocks had as few extraneous details as possible; the perfect utilitarian garment. By the 20th century, the smock began to be mass produced, with cotton meeting the greater demand for lighter, leisure-wear smocks.

As the 20th century wore on, the fishing industry evolved and new synthetic fabrics largely superseded the canvas, cloth and oilskin of a generation before. The smock, however, survived, having been transformed from a simple workman’s item into an icon of coastal identity and bohemian artists. With the addition of pockets, the smock we now know came into being. To this day, the smock is as practical, as versatile and as useful as it has always been.


Ernest Journal is a biannual printed magazine for the curious and adventurous. Issue 5 (£10) features slow adventures on Vancouver Island, a geological map that changed the world, the unruly world of made up languages, experiments with time, solargraphy, a short history of the vindaloo and a chance to meet the cryonics community of Peacehaven in Sussex. Buy a copy here.