I've long associated smocking with dresses worn by a certain type of Parisian girl: a raven-haired, violet-eyed three-year-old who runs riot around the playground in the Place des Vosges, and emerges docile and immaculate when maman says it's time to go home. Smocking is understated, yet winsome, hence its appeal for monied mothers in leafy old-world neighborhoods.
Smocking's historical use as a decorative element is varied and widespread. At its most basic, it involves gathering fabric into small pleats, then securing these pleats with embroidery stitches. Since the 1940s, smocking machines have enabled commercial manufacture of these garments; formerly the work was done by hand.
Here is a wonderful example of hand-done smocking, on a silk chiffon blouse worn by my husband's Greek grandmother for special occasions--mainly feast days and dances in her village near Sparta. The blouse, which dates to the 1920s, was made in Athens, denoting a garment of especially high quality.
From the Spartan plain to the cobbled streets of Antwerp, this is Dries Van Noten's take on smocking. Typical of his early direction, the garment is a minimalist masterpiece--an ivory cotton frock coat that would not be out of place in a laboratory, save for the pleats, gathers, and stitches adding texture in a band around the waist. You have to squint to see it, but the resulting texture is almost organic, like bark.
The Dries coat came from Oxfam, by the way. As is the case in any secondhand shop, it pays to squint at the details.