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The Chemise, Shift or Smock

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.

Styles of chemise
There appear to be three distinctly different styles of chemise or smock. Contemporary illustrations usually show men and women naked in the bedchamber, but occasionally show women modestly in their underclothes. From these images, and from existing garments we can deduce what was worn under the outer clothing.

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, almost certainly thick 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 would appear that the overwhelmingly most common fabric used for the chemise or smock are linens of varying qualities according to the social position of the wearer and the finances available. We know that according to current health beliefs, wool worn next to the skin was thought to be bad for the humours, and should be tempered with a layer of linen underclothing. In art, we see that chemises and smocks, along with men's under shertes and breeches, are almost always white.

According to Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane in their book, Dress In The Middle Ages, peasants and the less affluent would have worn hemp underclothes which were less expensive than linen.

The detail at left from the 1330-40 painting Scenes From The Life Of St John The Baptist appears to show a fabric of reasonable weight and stiffness suggesting linen.

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.

Generally, the chemise during the medieval period is depicted as plain and white. Later in the Renaissance, many had blackwork embroidered at the neckline and sleeves. It does appear, however, that the chemise during the medieval period may have been decorated at least sometimes.

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:

Alas, I dare not wear it!

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.

In 1298 the Consol of Narbonne passed a law against laced outer dresses which allowed the pleated and embroidered under-chemise to show. This tells us that at that period also, at least, the chemise could also be pleated and embroidered. For a law to need to have been passed, it stands to reason that it must be an occurrence common enough for it to be a concern.

Later into the 14th century, all images in art show a tunic style unpleated garment. Heading into late 14th century, Italian art starts to show the pleated chemise which was designed to be seen down the arms. Shown at right above, is a detail from 1484 Master Of The Housebook's The Uncourtly Lovers which shows a chemise decorated with gold and pearls. By the late 15th century, it was extremely common to see the chemise, which might be finely pleated and have needlework at the top which could be seen.

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