“Some years ago I saw a female race’;
the prize, a shift–a Holland shift, I ween:
Ten Damsels, nearly all in naked grace,
Rush’d for the precious Prize along the Green.
— The Works of Peter Pindar, 1812
It’s almost Easter and Popular Pastimes (1816) advises one can readily find a smock-race in “country places” this time of the year.
Word Wenches has an excellent description of the custom here. This post is a little like adding some color to the custom.
The smock race was merely one of several spectacles at spring festivals and fairs. James Birchall (England Under the Revolution and the House of Hanover 1688 to 1820, 1876) relates that smock races were held in Pall Mall through the eighteenth century, along with other amusements like “prize fights, bull-baiting and the Cock-pit, and (goodness me!) an execution at Tyburn.”
I suspect that spring, for a country lass, was not only an excellent time to acquire a new frock, it was imperative. The weather was warming, making one’s winter smock sadly out of fashion as well as unsuitable for the changing season’s temperature. The condition of last year’s summer smock, by virtue of the fact it saw a great deal more outside activity than winter’s raiment, was beyond help, being hopelessly stained and mended many times over.
Easter was a holiday (along with Whitsun and Ascension Day) which provided time off from one’s labor to see about the getting of a new smock. The smock race coincided with such holidays–by design, no doubt.
The smock race featured a well-made prize. The smock (or chemise) was generally executed from fine Holland cloth, which may have been more practical than fine India muslin, but for me has the melancholy connection with the shutting up of houses and retrenching. So it was brightened up with ribbons and special poppy-colored bows attached to the frock, called coquelicot.
Hoisted on a standard for display, the smock lured young females to indulge in unladylike pursuits, like running full-tilt in full view of interested onlookers. There seemed to be no lack of participants, so the garment must have been a seductive prize, indeed.
The custom acquired a notorious reputation when some races required competitive attire to be limited to an, er, smock.
The circumstances of feminine rustics being made to entertain was alternately celebrated and deplored. Favorable reviews came from those spectators that were generally squires, apprentices and sporting dandies in search of amusement. They brushed aside any disapproval, insisting the whole affair was a “very pretty and merry sight.”
Good for the lungs, what–what?
The remarkable painter George Morland, to whom we owe a great debt in the rendering of rural Georgian England, might have given us a good deal more to see of the period, but for his frequent habit of taking
“..a ride into the country to a smock-race or a grinning-match (!), a jolly dinner and a drinking-bout after it; a mad scamper home with a flounce into the mud.” — The New Wonderful Museum and Extraordinary Magazine (1805)
The specter of a mock-race called to mind licentiousness. It was ill-bred to indulge in it, both as a participant and observer. The lower classes were free to entertain themselves in such a manner, for that was the condition to which they were born to. For the upper classes, the smock race provided an excellent vehicle by which to pass judgment on others.
Consider, for a moment, a miss just arriving at church red-faced and wind-blown. Her appearance alone brings censure. Sitting down in the pew, she cannot but help overhear whispers behind her. The derision is almost palpable, the hushed tones impossible to ignore, speculating out loud that perhaps she looked that way because she’d just run a smock-race.
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The course of true love ne’er did run smooth, and evidently neither did the pursuit of new underthings. Thank heavens it wasn’t a steeple chase…I hope.
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Now that would have been a spectacle.