When is a Chemise not a Chemise?

When it’s a smock!

You may be wondering what I’m on about. A word is just a word is just a word, right? And yet since words — particularly nouns — are the way we communicate meaning, is it not worthwhile to employ the proper words for the item to which we refer?

Yeah. Thought so.

In Renaissance Costuming circles, the word for a lady’s undergarment has long been “chemise”. But how many people know what people living during the Renaissance called a lady’s undergarment? The French would have called it “chemise”1 or something like it. However, you and I are speaking English. And the Renaissance Faires in the United States are speaking English. And an overwhelming number of Renaissance Faires are portraying the lives of English royalty.

So what’s with the French?

I think I can trace the origins of the use of the word “chemise” to mean women’s undergarments in English. Unfortunately, it’s not from the Renaissance. In the gloriously repressed Victorian period, when table legs were covered because they were thought too provacative for the eyes of weak mortals, the English word for a women’s undergarment — shift — became a dirty word. So the French word, chemise, was adopted as a euphemism.

“Chemise” has come down to us modernly to describe a piece of lingerie that resembles an earlier chemise in name and function only. Typically modern chemises aren’t daily-wear undergarments as much as they are night clothing intended for romantic liaisons.

But in the 16th century and before, English speakers were calling their skivvies a smock. In her article on Elizabethan and Jacobean Smocks and Shirts, Janet Arnold tells us that the word “shirt” is often used interchangeably for men’s and women’s undergarments. But “smock” is the word most commonly used in the 16th century to describe shirts for women2. The word “shift” comes into use in 1598, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning “a body-garment of linen, cotton, or the like; in early use applied indifferently to men’s and women’s underclothing; subsequently, a woman’s “smock” or chemise. In the 17th century “smock” began to be displaced by “shift” as a more delicate expression; in the 19th c. the latter, from the same motive, gave place to chemise.”3

So if you want everyone to think you really know what you’re talking about when it comes to Renaissance clothing, call it a smock.

Buy a pattern for 16thc lady’s undergarments here!

  1. “chemise.” c.1050, cemes, from O.Fr., from L.L. camisia “shirt, tunic” (c.400 C.E.), first used as a soldier’s word, probably via Gaulish, from P.Gmc. *khamithjan (cf. Ger. Hemd “shirt”), from PIE base *kem- “to cover, cloak.” The Fr. form took over after c.1200.– Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 25 Apr. 2008. Dictionary.com
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, unabridged.
  3. Arnold, Janet. “Elizabethan and Jacobean Smocks and Shirts” in Waffen-und Kostumkunde, Pt. 2 (1977), pgs 89-110

© 2004 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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