The modern-day chemise has earned a reputation as a scandalous vixen of the night. But in decades past, the “chemise” referred to a simpler, lengthier garment than its lacy descendants. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, the chemise resembled a long, loose-fitting nightgown or a shapeless, straight, unadorned dress
. This was the only undergarment worn by women (men had their own version of this undershirt, sometimes called the camicia: http://blog.historicalclothingrealm.com/2012/06/14/guide-to-renaissance-swag-mens-edition/).
The chemise likely evolved from the Roman tunica, and it became popular in the Middle Ages. This ancient slip was worn atop the skin and protected outer layers of clothing from sweat and body oils. Keep in mind that women of this era did not bathe regularly, so clothes had the potential to become potent friendship repellents. Not to mention that outerwear, like a noblewoman’s gown, was pretty fancy with a capital Peacock Feather – not the kind of piece you can afford to have ruined by your B.O. As the designated undergarment, the chemise was usually the only clothing that was washed regularly!
If you weren’t the kind of woman who had her own team of seamstresses hand-picking silkworms to spin your threads (so pretty much everyone… maybe everyone), you might have been one of the many needle-nimble ladies sewing their own chemises! Homemade chemises were typically made of linen. The garment was put together from rectangular and triangular pieces cut out of the same piece of fabric, to ensure that not a scrap was wasted. The poorer classes would’ve made chemises from narrow pieces of rough cloth. The rich would have had billowing chemises of smooth, fine linen.
The chemise continued its totalitarian reign of the Undergarment Universe until the 1800s when it was replaced by a brassiere, girdle, full slip, and panties – kinda like replacing a soloist with a 12-piece orchestra. The story ends at the dressing room door, friends – we’re keeping this PG…