|Figure 1: Engraving of a portrait of Nell Gwyn|
I am fascinated by words and their origins. There are three words that describe what was the main women’s undergarment for over a thousand years – the smock, the chemise and the shift. Smock and chemise are part of that wonderful dichotomy that enriches the English language, and means that we have cattle and sheep in the field, but beef and mutton on the table. Smock is Old English, while chemise comes from the Latin and the French, and both terms appear to have been in use in the early middle ages – let’s say around the time of the Norman Conquest, so in different sections of Morris’s work on 12th century texts you have references to both, “Hire chemise smal and hwit” and “hire smoc hwit”. (1) There being fashions in language, just as there are fashions in clothes, chemise more or less disappears in the middle ages.
By the middle of the 17th century people are still speaking of their smocks, but this is being replaced by that upstart word shift. Now shift comes from the idea of movement in the original use of the word, and by the late 16th, early 17th century people were using it in the way that we nowadays would speak of a change of clothes, so that for example of someone getting soaked on board ship it is said “He that had five or six shifts of apparel had scarce one dried thread to his back” (2) A hundred years later the shift has become a woman’s undergarment. By this time shift had also taken on the meaning of the women’s changing room in Restoration theatres. Pepys writes of visiting the theatre where the actress Elizabeth Knepp took him “up into the tireing-rooms: and to the women’s shift, where Nell [Gwyn] was dressing herself”. (3) A print of Lely’s painting of Nell in a smock/shift is at Fig 1.
By the late 17th century the term shift was in common use, with the 1696 work “The Merchant’s Wharehouse laid Open; or The Plain Dealing Linnen-Draper” declaring yard wide holland to be “the bredth for shifts for a moderate-size body, but for a Lusty woman it is too narrow.” In 1712 Addison used the word shift in his example of the rags make paper circle, writing, “The finest pieces of Holland [a cloth often used for shifts], when torn to tatters, assume a whiteness more beautiful than their first, and often return in the shape of letters to their native country. A lady’s shift may be metamorphosed into a billet-doux, and come into her possession a second time. ” (4) The smock continued in occasional use, the London Tradesman in 1747 is quoted as saying that holland, cambric and other fine fabric is provided to be made into, “smocks, aprons, tippets, hankerchiefs...” (5)
Moving into the late 18th century early 19th century, chemise makes its reappearance as a term, with the fashion for the chemise gown. In the 1780s the fashion for the chemise gown is definitely for an outer garment. The Ipswich Journal of April 1786 describes, “The chemise has two collars and is made of a pale lilac India lutestring (a type of taffeta)...the breast knot with which the chemise is tied and the shoes are of the same colour.” (6)
By the middle of the 19th century it was referring to an undergarment. In his 1850 autobiography Leigh Hunt writes that shift, “that harmless expression has been set aside in favour of the French word chemise.” (7) As with the smock/shift change over the divisions are not that hard and fast. The word smock is still around, in the Ingoldsby Legends published in the 1840s someone is described as saying, “You may sell my chemise, (Mrs. P. was too well—bred to mention her smock)”
1. Morris, Richard. Old English homilies of the twelfth century · EETS 53, 1873. London : Early English Texts Society, 1873.
2. Beste, George. A true discourse of the late voyages of discouerie... London : Henry Bynnyman, 1578.
3. Pepys, Samuel. Diary. [Online] 5th October 1667. [Cited: 26th August 2014.] http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1667/10/05/.
4. Addison, Joseph. The Spectator. 1712, Vol. No. 367.
5. Tobin, Shelley. Inside out: a brief history of underwear. London : National Trust, 2000.
6. Cunnington, C. W. and P. Handbook of English costume in the Eighteenth century. 2nd . London : Faber, 1972.
7. Hunt, Leigh. The autobiography of Leigh Hunt . London : Smith, Elder, 1850.