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 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 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 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.