A History Of: The Army Smock – Nigel Cabourn
A History Of: The Army Smock

A History Of: The Army Smock

A History Of: The Army Smock

The origin of the word ‘smock’ isn’t exactly known, however it’s thought that usage of the term started in the Elizabethan era to describe the linen shirts worn by men and women as undergarments.

Smocks went from being worn as undergarments at nighttime to daywear sometime during the nineteenth century, where they started to be worn as work clothing by ‘country folk’ during the day and remained a common piece of work clothing until the Victorian era, where they fell out of fashion and usage.

Varying in appearance, fabric, length, and colour, it was the mid and southern farming communities of England that popularised the smocks use. Cut as squares so that no paper pattern was required – therefore limiting fabric wastage –, pleating the fabric in a consistent manner and then embroidering it was an efficient way of reducing the width of the garment, whilst maintaining freedom of movement when being worn. Whilst often looking quite decorative, it was important that these smocks were functional too – ease of movement was essential, and the shirt itself had to be robust enough to withstand the toil of hard physical labor.

Whilst the smock was originally derived from peasant work clothing, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that its usage developed further and eventually came to form an essential part of military kit. 

Tested during early explorations to Antarctica, smocks were manufactured in hardier fabrics by the likes of Burberry who made them in their signature cotton gabardine, making the garment wind and weatherproof. These original windproof smocks were worn by explorers such as Falcon Scott and Roald Armundsen in some of the harshest conditions in the world and provided the blueprint for much of the military and outdoor clothing that followed later in the century.

When World War Two started in 1939, a variety of purpose-built smocks were designed with specific needs in mind. The British Army developed the Denison smock – a four pocket, half- zip fastening pullover jacket that was worn by paratroopers to keep their equipment from snagging when jumping from airplanes. The Germans and Canadians developed similar light cotton smocks for the same purpose. In the US, the Navy deck smock was a short denim utility type denim jacket designed for work aboard an aircraft carrier. The Gunner Smock was the same kind of design but made in white cotton, worn by gun turret crews and later sent to Europe as emergency snow camo during the Battle of the Bulge. The Swedish and Norwegian armed forces were better prepared in this regard and created full length smocks for mountainous warfare in snowy conditions.

Early in the European conflict, the allied forces sought to defend Norway from German invasion thereby stopping the spread of fascism to Northern Europe and securing a number of strategic ports in the process. A British, French, and Polish expeditionary force of 38,000 troops landed in the north of the country and whilst having some success on the field, they had to make a strategic retreat after Nazi Germany began the blitzkrieg invasion of France. This led to the Norwegian government fleeing the country and seeking exile in Britain, and the country falling to German occupation. It was whilst fighting in the tough conditions of the Norwegian terrain that the British command realised how ill-equipped their troops were for this kind of mountainous combat. 

 The Scottish 52nd (Lowland) Division were retrained as a mountain warfare unit and issued new kit suitable for mountain warfare. A vital and long-lasting part of this kit was a square cut, cotton windproof smock. A pullover type garment with integral hood, the smock was cut loose so that it could be worn over the top of other uniform and equipment.

Reinforced around the elbows and lower arms, the cuffs had button tabs for adjustment with a braid drawcord adjuster for the hood and hems. Four button fastening pockets sat on the front body for storage. Originally designed as a mountain smock, they were initially worn by American infantry personnel fighting against German forces in the forests of the Ardennes. This original smock was made in a rugged green denim that was also used for battledress at the time, but it proved so popular with troops that it was worn for the next 35 years! Different colours were introduced for different types of conditions and environments, including an all-white snow suit, and a tan version that many people assume was issued for desert conditions but was again, for mountain combat. Finally, towards the end of the war with a large amount of surplus camouflage fabric available, the smock was made up in this camo and issued to Special Forces and other elite troops. 

Not only inspired by period styles but also identifying and celebrating universally good design, the Cabourn brand chose not to make any overt changes to its own ‘British Army Smock’, – instead the design team recognise and appreciate the usefulness of the original garment and would rather shine a light on this than make unnecessary styling changes simply for the sake of it. Cut oversized and following the same essential design of the original ‘suit Snow Smock’ made by the army for its mountain troops in 1940, the brand updates the garment solely by offering it in a contemporary cotton fabric made utilising the best of British manufacturing.