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 each year.
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
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 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
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
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.
© Rosalie Gilbert
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