Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Chemise

The way the weather has been going lately in my part of the world, underwear is greatly on my mind—long, woolly underwear, to be precise! Brrr!

But underwear has also been on my mind because I have something very neat to show you—a recent addition to my antiques collection!

This, dear readers, is a chemise—pretty much the mainstay of women’s undergarments for many, many centuries, from medieval times up through the early twentieth century. This particular chemise probably dates to the early 19th century. It is made of fine but sturdy linen, and the seams are all handsewn and flat felled, so that there are no edges to ravel. The seamstress cut her chemise with the bottom edge on the selvage of the fabric, so that no hem was necessary. It is slightly A-lined, has a yoke top and slightly drop-shouldered cap sleeves (see photo below).

As you can see in the closeup below, there’s a drawstring around the neckline to adjust the fit: the casing for it is made of twilled tape sewn to the body of the garment. The drawstring itself is interesting—it looks initially like a knit, but on closer examination appears to be woven on the bias, which surprised me—I had no idea bias tape dated back so far. And last of all, the chemise is marked with the owner’s initials, M R, cross-stitched in red thread. The entire garment measures 40 inches from the back of the neck to the hem (probably just below the wearer's knees), 25 inches wide at the top of the underarm seam, and 37 ½ inches across at the bottom.  This chemise is on the plain side, but they might have lace or ruffles or embroidery around the neckline, depending on how much time and patience one had for fancywork!

So—what is a chemise, anyway?

The chemise was worn as a sort of multipurpose foundation garment. It went next to the skin, and everything else was worn on top of it—corset, petticoats, dresses, underskirts—everything (in the image at right, a French fashion print from 1822, the young woman is lacing her stays over her long chemise). It added an extra layer for warmth, but more importantly, protected all of one’s other garments from direct contact with the skin. In the days of no deodorant or automatic washing machines, that was a big deal: the chemise took the brunt of skin oils and sweat, and being plainly made of sturdy fabric, could be washed (which generally involved strong lye soaps and boiling water). Pretty smart, when you think about how dresses might have oodles of lace or other elaborate trimmings on them which would be almost impossible to launder. Chemises also doubled as sleeping garments, and were probably quite comfortable for that purpose.


Cara King said...

Thanks for the detailed photos and description of your chemise! Very interesting.

Camy Tang said...

This was SO neat to see! Thanks!

sewnfool said...

Thank you for the explanation. That makes my search for a chemise easier. I can make that.