A MEDIEVAL WOMAN'S LIFE - AT HOME
- BIRTHS - WEDDINGS - DIVORCE - DEATHS - MANNERS - EDUCATION - EMPLOYMENT
CLOTHES - ITEMS OF CLOTHING - DRESS ACCESSORIES FABRICS & SEWING BEAUTY, HEALTH & HYGIENE MY TALKS MY SEWING MY ARTIFACTS BIBLIOGRAPHY LINKS
The Chemise, Shift or Smock
STYLES - FABRICS - DECORATION
The chemise, shift or smock was the innermost layer of the medieval lady's dresses, much like a petticoat or slip of our grandmother's day. It was worn next to the skin to absorb bodily odors and keep the outer layers smelling fresher for longer. Great robes, houppelandes and kirtles could be heavily embellished with embroidery and semiprecious stones, so it was wise to keep the laundering of the outer robes to a minimum.
In 1313, Anicia atte Hegge, a widow from Hampshire, made a will on the surrendering of her holding to her son which included the stipulation that she would be provided with various items of clothing including a chemise worth 8d each year.
The first style seems to be made of an opaque fabric, probably linen, constructed with fitted sleeves and not overly shaped through the body. It can be seen at right in the detail from the early 1400's illumination Dionysus I humiliates the women of Locri. The woman are in the process of removing their outer clothing and the chemise shown appears to be a reasonable thickness, probably linen.
The second type of chemise appears to be a strapless or shoestring strap type of petticoat-like dress which could vary in length from knee to shin length. The detail at left is taken from the Wenceslas Bible, dated around 1390-1400. It shows two women in their underclothes tending to a man in a bath.
There are also quite a few bathing images from 14th century Bohemian manuscripts where women are shown with a wooden bucket and wearing a chemise. Some of these are semi-opaque but others, like the detail shown at right, are quite sheer. Almost all of these are of a similar style- a garment with thin shoulder straps and no sleeves.
The third style of chemise seems to have persisted from through to the renaissance where it was clearly visible through slashed clothing and at necklines. It is a more voluminous style, has puffed sleeves and appears to be made of a finer type of fabric than the opaque linens previously worn by women. It seems unlikely that this particular style would have been favoured by ladies who preferred the more form-fitting kirtles, and was possibly the choice of those who preferred the more voluminous houppelandes of the 15th century.
In several instances we hear of noblewomen
who become nuns and renounced their silken underthings. According to
one written reference, a noble lady took up a hair shirt to replace
her underclothes of silk as part of her penitence. This suggests that
ladies of high society may have enjoyed luxurious silken chemises.
In the 13th century, we read a poem by an unknown author who laments the Sumptuary Laws and the restrictions on her clothing and in particular, her chemise. She says that she can no longer wear her white chemise which is richly embroidered with silk in bright colours and gold and silver. She bemoans:
indicating not only that in her time period
at least, the chemise could be richly embroidered with silk and precious
metal thread and also that the Sumptuary Laws which were often largely
ignored, were partially effective at times. It also indicates that her
chemise may have been seen and was not entirely concealed by her outer
clothing. Shown at right is a detail from 1484 Master Of The Housebook's
The Uncourtly Lovers which shows a chemise decorated with gold
Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
All text & photographs within this site are the property of Rosalie Gilbert unless stated.
Art & artifact images remain the property of the owner.
Images and text may not be copied and used without permission.