The Chemise :
What Is It? What's Its History?

Chemises date back to the Middle Ages, with the intention to be worn as a barrier between the body and outer clothes. The chemise absorbed oil and body odor, which is why the garment was washed more regularly than any other piece of clothing. The outer clothes were fresher longer as result, which was great, because most outer garments had ornate beading and embellishments. Not exactly the easiest to wash, huh?

Worn underneath the corset and petticoat, the chemise was the only true piece of underwear, as it served as a vest, drawers, and a nightshirt. It was a very all-in-one, multipurpose undergarment, and it was in style until the end of the early 20th century.

Funnily enough, the word “chemise” in French simply means “shirt”. (Of course, “chemise” sounds much more elegant and refined.) In English, the chemise is called a “smock”, while in Italian it is called a camica. The Irish word for the garment is léine. Like I said, the chemise dress has been around since the Middle Ages, so it’s not surprising that so many cultures in Europe and the western world adopted this style of undergarment.

During the Middle Ages, the chemise appears to have come in three distinct styles, deciphered from medieval illustrations from the early 1400s. There’s the linen chemise, made from a thickly woven, heavy material. It is has fitted sleeve, but hangs loosely around the body, and was worn underneath ladies’ robes or gowns as the only form of underwear.

There’s also the strapless or shoestring-strapped chemise dress. It was petticoat-like and varied in length from knee to shin length.

In many 14th century Bohemian manuscripts, bathing images of women shown with wooden buckets wearing chemises are ubiquitous. In some of these illustrations, the chemises were semi-opaque, but others were very sheer.

All of these chemises within this style had thin shoulder straps and no sleeves.

The final style seems to have subsisted through the Renaissance. This style had voluminous puffed sleeves and appears to have been made with higher quality fabric than the previous thick, stiff material used for chemises during Middle Ages.

This garment was visible at the neck and sleeves of ladies’ dresses, and later into the renaissance, these chemises became embellished with blackwork along these visible sections of the garment. (Add some eye candy where it’s visible! That’s my motto!) Prior to the renaissance of course, chemises were typically plain and white, as depicted by these medieval illustrations. 

There is some evidence to suggest that high-class ladies may have enjoyed silk chemises, according to one written reference of a nun, who was originally a noble lady, renouncing her “silken underthings” as part of her penitence. So, maybe some high-class ladies did rock the silk! Chemises varied in quality of material according to your social class, and it is believed by historians that the lower class wore hemp underclothes. Make do with what you have, right?

It was believed at the time that wool worn next to skin was bad for the humors and that your health could be protected by wearing a chemise under your outer clothes. Humors are the “four elements” of fluid substances within the human body: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. This was a principal form of knowledge within the ancient world, so you can see why the people who lived during this time strongly believed in the importance of wearing an undergarment beneath potentially harmful outer wear.

In the 1780s, something interesting happen to the chemise. Marie Antoinette, yes, the infamous French queen, helped popularize a brand-spanking-new fashion: the chemise à la reine or robe en chemise. This was a garment meant to be worn as outer wear, and it was loose, informal, and had a gathered skirt. It was in sheer, white cotton, and was worn with a sash to accentuate the waist. Basically, it was a white gown with a fancy name. But you have to admit, it is quite beautiful in its simplicity. “Reine”, meaning “queen”, was a clear reference to Marie Antoinette.

After chemise dresses became the dominant fashion, the word “chemise” was synonymous with this popular style. Once the 1800s hit, however, there was no longer a need to describe the chemise’s silhouette, and so the word reverted to its original meaning. From that point forward, there was no significant change to the chemise, and eventually went out of fashion as new innovations in the lingerie world appeared to replace this garment.

The slip subsequently replaced the chemise altogether, and the word “chemise” became used to refer to the modern chemise, which is typically a loose-fitting, delicate, and sleeveless nightgown-like slip. They are sexy, lacey, and sensual, and completely different from their matronly predecessor. Yes, the chemise is no longer something that your great-great-many-greats-grandmother would wear; it’s spicy lingerie. There is something about wearing a modern chemise that makes you feel so incredibly feminine and seductive, so let’s bring the chemise to the bedroom, ladies!

More History of Lingerie