The History of the Chemise

The chemise is one of the clothing items that became a standard undergarment in 1800s fashion. The term has been traditionally referred to as a dress cut straight at the sides and left unfitted in the waist. It was a basic garment designed to be worn closest to the skin, preventing the outer clothing from sweat and bodily oils. It is the precursor of modern shirts.

The term “chemise” is a loanword from the French. It might sound sexy in French, but it only basically means “shirt.” Approximate equivalents to the chemise include the Latin camisia, the Italian camicia, and the Spanish camisa, all of which are likely derived from Celtic.

Traditionally, chemise was made from soft and smooth fabrics like silk and cotton. Nowadays, chemise can also be made from synthetic fabrics and other materials, such as polyester.

Origins of the chemise

Until the late 18th century, chemise (or shift) was the primary undergarment for women. It was the only underwear worn until the end of the Regency era in the 1820s and the only piece of clothing that was frequently washed. Most chemise at the time were loose, knee-length undergarments with a straight or slightly triangular shape. 

white chemise, 1830
Chemise from 1830
white chemise, 1863
Chemise from 1863

The term “chemise” was first used to refer to an outer garment in the 1780s when Marie Antoinette, queen of France, popularized a kind of loose-fitting informal gown made of sheer white cotton, resembling the undergarment chemise in both cut and material. It came to be known at the time as chemise à la reine. During the early 19th century, the term “chemise” also came to refer to as an outer garment.

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette wearing a dress that came to be known as “chemise à la reine”

Chemise in the 20th century to present

As the 20th century loomed, the chemise dwindled in popularity in favor of the newer types of undergarments, such as the brassiere (bra), girdle, and the full slip. Women at the time also started to wear panties.

However, the chemise still exists and is worn mainly as an undergarment. But the modern chemise is remarkably different from the chemise of the olden days. Nowadays, the chemise dress has become an important part of women’s lingerie. 

a woman wearing a purple chemise

Compared to the conservative-looking chemise of the 18th and 19th centuries, today’s chemise looks a lot sexier — loose, sleeveless (mostly with spaghetti straps), with a low-cleavage cut, and generally going up above the knee. Of course, being a part of lingerie, chemise dresses are available in a variety of sexy styles as they are designed to be provocative, flirtatious, and sensual.

Modern chemise dresses are made of various materials, such as lace, metallic threads, shiny leather, flower lace designs, sheer mesh, and a lot more. Chemise has come a long way from a plain, conservative undergarment to a sexy lingerie item. Some of them are quite small, skimpy, and provocative that leaves little to the imagination!