Chemise, Shift or Smock
STYLES - FABRICS - DECORATION
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
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, probably linen.
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.
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
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.
It would appear that the most common fabric used for the chemise
or smock are hems or linens of varying qualities according to
the social position of the wearer and the finances available.
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
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.
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. Shown at right
is a detail from 1484 Master Of The Housebook's The Uncourtly
Lovers which shows a chemise decorated with gold and pearls.
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, 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.