Women's Smock of the Late 16th Century

From the SCRIBE archive

by Lady Clare Margaret di Cuneo
January 4, 1992, A.S. XVII

This is the most basic of all undergarments and the one with the longest history. The words smock, shirt, shift, and chemise all refer to the same garment except that shirt appears to refer to a man's garment, smock and shift a woman's, and chemise, a French woman's. The purpose of these is all the same: to protect the rich fabrics of the upper garments from body oil and perspiration.

We know from existing garments that men's and women's shirts and smocks were cut and decorated almost identically. Both were made from the width of the fabric (period fabric was usually about 22 inches wide) for the body but whereas men's shirts have straight side seams, women's smocks are widened by gores from just above the waist downward allowing for the extra width of a woman's hips. If the fabric was very wide, sometimes the extra width was cut in one with the body.

Lines of embroidery and other decoration follow the same patterns of shirts and smocks. This is not surprising since items made of linen (shirts, smocks, partletts, ruffs, etc.) were made almost exclusively by women. The shape of the garments being similar, embroidery patterns would easily translate from smock to shirt. The similarity between the smock and shirt was satirized by Ben Jonson in "Every Man in His Humour" (1601) when a woman loans her husband one of her smocks to wear while she is wash ing his shirt. [1].

In addition to day wear, smocks were also worn at night to sleep in. Accounts of the wardrobes of Queen Elizabeth I tell of "nightgowns" but no detailed description is made and none have survived. It is certain that less wealthy folk slept in the sam e garment they would have worn during the day.

Smocks were made from all weights of linen, from fine to heavy. Some were embroidered all over, while others were plain. In the first third of the 16th century, smocks were made with a low square or curved neckline that would extend about 2.5 centime ters past the neck of the gown. From about the 1530's onward, the neckline was filled in either with a high-necked smock or a partlett (in most portraits it is virtually impossible to tell the difference). This high-necked style rose even higher with a frill on the neckband. Eventually this frill became so large that it developed into a separate ruff. Some smocks have flat collars that can turn down over the collar of a doublet or be starched to stand up, framing the face. These collars are often edge d with lace.

Wardrobe accounts, portraits, and surviving garments show that decoration usually follows one of a few patterns: lines of embroidery or lace trim lie in either vertical or diagonal arrangements on the sleeves, chest, and back. One surviving fragment has embroidery designs running horizontally around the body. [2]

If the smock has a low square neckline, the embroidery will usually follow the line of the square. When reading wardrobe accounts, take the meaning of the word "square" from context. In addition to a low-necked gown that would be filled in by a smoc k.

"Sir Gawen Carewe gave Queen Elizabeth 'a camerick smock wroght with black silke in the collor and sleves, the square and ruffs wroght with venice golde, and edged with a small bone lace of Venice golde' as a New Year's Gift in 1577. In this case the smock had a collar and was therefore made high to the neck, so the 'square' referred to the embroidered area reaching from shoulder to chest level". [3]

Examples of embroidery color on existing garments and in wardrobe accounts are black, white, gold, silver, deep pink, dull crimson, and multicolor. In addition to embroidery, gold and silver bobbin lace, bone lace, needle lace, cutwork, and drawnwork were also used. One surviving smock is trimmed with diagonal rows of bobbin lace made from black silk and white linen.[4]

The subject matter of the embroidery was as varied as the colors: winged insects, birds perched on sprays of leaves and berries, squirrels, snails, acorns, and flowers. The fragment with horizontal bands of embroidery mentioned earlier is decorated w ith rainbows, clouds, raindrops, streams, and a variety of flowers.

The amount of decoration was left to the taste and pocketbook of the wearer. Some smocks were embroidered all over, some only on the upper body, and, according to accounts, some were left plain. No completely plain smocks known to be of 16th or earl y 17th century origin have survived.

Closures were accomplished by tapes and ribbons. The ties used to close the neckband of a smock or ruff are called "band strings". While buttons were invented in the 14th century, they were not used on underclothes until the 17th century. I have fou nd no mention of the use of hooks and eyes. MATERIALS

4 1/2 or more yards of 45" or wider fabric Narrow ribbon for closures Lace or embroidery thread (optional)


A smock does not have to be voluminous. Remember that while period fabric came in many widths, it was usually much narrower than the fabric we can buy today. If you are going to wear it underneath a pair of bodies or a tight bodice, all that extra f abric really would just get in the way. Existing garments are shoulder width at the upper body and widen gently for the hips. I only know of one existing garment (a man's shirt) that has so much fabric in the body that it is gathered. [5] The smock I h ave based my pattern upon is about 20 inches from the shoulder to shoulder and 80 inches around the hem. [6] Ashelford says that normally the body of a smock would be 30 to 40 inches long [7] but this garment is over 50 inches from shoulder to hem and so would appear to have been ankle of floor length. You can make yours to whatever length is most convenient.

Base your pattern on the diagram below. This is a high-necked smock with a collar. Dotted lines on the chest area are for a low-necked smock. You will want to make a facing piece to finish the edge of the squar e. If you choose, you may cut the front and back of the body separately, adding a shoulder seam.


Embroidery is easier to accomplish on flat pieces of fabric so do all the decoration you can before you sew the pieces together.

Sew and finish shoulder seams (if any). Face the square or sew on the collar and frill. Sew sleeves onto body then close side seams and sleeve seams, leaving a few inches open at the wrist. Turn under and finish seam allowances on these wrist openi ngs.

Finish hem and attach cuffs (and wrist frills, if you choose). Attach ribbons for closing at the collar and cuffs.


[1] Ashelford, pg. 13 [2] Arnold, E & J. S. & S., pg. 92 [3] Arnold, E & J. S. & S., pg. 93 [4] Arnold, E & J. S. & S., pg. 107 [5] Arnold, E & J. S. & S., pg. 101 and Ashelford, pg. 45 [6] Arnold, E & J. S. & S., pg. 94 and 103 [7] Ashelford, pg. 13


Arnold, Janet "Elizabethan and Jacobean Smocks and Shirts" Waffen-und Kostumkunde Munchen, Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag v ?, pt 2 (1977): pp 89-110 Arnold, Janet Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for m en and women c. 1560-1620 New York: Drama Book, 1985 Arnold, Janet Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd np: W.S. Maney and Son, Ltd., 1988 Ashelford, Jane Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I New York: Holmes & Meier, nd. Cunnington, C. Willett and Phillis The History of Underclothes London and Boston: Faber and Faber, nd. Ewing, Elizabeth Underwear, A History New York: Theatre Arts Books, nd. Waugh, Norah Corsets and Crinolines Lon don: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., nd.