One of the most common items found in historical costuming is the chemise. A chemise is a long slip-like garment that was worn as an undergarment by both men and women until the 19th century.
Evolving from the Roman tunica, the chemise — or ‘smock’ in early English — first became popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. Women wore a long shift or chemise underneath their dresses while men wore a shorter version that was more like an undershirt.
Smocks, shifts and chemises were mostly made of linen and worn predominantly as a way to protect the wearer’s clothing from sweat and body oils, particularly among the upper classes. The velvets and silks that they wore would not stand up to the pound-on-a-river-rock method of washing and since people of that era rarely indulged in proper bathing it was vitally important to have a layer between the body and the outer clothing. Early smocks were most common in two styles: one with a low square neckline and narrow sleeves, the other with a high, gathered neck and full sleeves. Shifts among the upper classes were often decorated with ribbon ties and embroidery. Blues and reds were the most common colors for the decoration and among the very, very rich they also used black. “Blackwork” or “Spanish work” embroidery was very expensive to produce due to the iron-based dyes used and as the dyes themselves were corrosive to the thread there are very few intact examples of this technique left today.
In the late 1700’s Marie Antoinette introduced an informal, loose-fitting cotton gown that became known as the gaulle or chemise a la riene. The loosely draped layers and belted waist were a huge departure from the tightly fitted garments worn by the French count and the fashionable ladies of both France and England both took to the trend enthusiastically, reserving them for use at their private country estates. Unfortunately for the ill-fated queen the introduction of such casual clothing was seen as the latest of strikes against her in the public eye. Between the wearing of such scandalous clothing and her retreats to the Petit Trianon, the people declared that her behavior was more along the lines of a King’s mistress than of a proper Queen. Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette wearing her famous gaulle only helped launch the latest scandal and solidified the populace’s feelings against her for it looked more like an undergarment than a true gown. There was also the issue of the gaulle being made of English muslin rather than the French silk of most of the court gowns which caused a huge financial loss to the French industries when the trend caught on.
Despite its negative connotations the gaulle eventually inspired the loose, empire-waist gowns that were popular in the early nineteenth century. With a dress silhouette that fit so close to the body the wearing of the chemise was crucial to keep the thin fabric from clinging to the legs. (What a scandal that would have caused! Seeing actual legs, can you imagine?) Not to mention that the fabric used for the dresses themselves was sometimes so fine as to be actually see-through.
This particular style of dress persisted into the eighteen-teens, when lower waists and heavier fabrics once again became the norm. It was around this time that ‘pantaloons’ or ‘drawers’ became more common in women’s underwear. The shifts worn over them were short, hip- to knee-length when the drawers came to mid-calf, and were often embellished with lace and ribbon trim depending on the affluence and personal taste of the wearer.
The chemise continued to be worn during the Victorian era, over the drawers but under the corset, hoops, and bustle. The garment fell out of favor in the early 20th century, replaced by the brassiere, girdle, and slip.
Today’s modern “shift dress” is a callback to these earlier styles. Introduced by the fashion houses of Dior and Balenciaga in the 1950’s, the “shift” ceased to be known as an undergarment and evolved into what it is today: a simple, comfortable dress that can be worn day or night, for any occasion.