Monday, 29 September 2014

Smock Shift Chemise

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.]
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.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A farmer's wife - 1540s

From Heywood's Spider & the Flie. 1556

John (or possibly his brother Anthony (1470-1538)) Fitzherbert's Book of Husbandry, first published 1523, is a classic in the history of English farming literature. It goes well beyond just farming, and below is the book's description of the work of a farmer's wife, from a 1548 edition. I have modernised spellings, and split it into paragraphs, as the original is one long paragraph. 

"And when thou art up and ready, then first sweep thy house, dress up thy dishboard, and set all good things in order within thy house: milk thy cow, suckle thy calves, sye (strain) up thy milks, take up thy children, array them, provide for thy husband’s breakfast, dinner, supper, and for thy children and servants, and take thy part with them. 

And to order corn and malt to the mill, and to bake and brew withal when need is. And mette (take) it to the mill, and fro the mill, and see that thou have thy measure against the desired toll, or else the miller dealeth not truely with thee, or else thy corn is not dry as it should be.

Thou must make butter and cheese when thou maist, serve thy swine both morning and evening, give thy poleyn(?) meat in the morning, and when time of the year cometh, thy must take heed how thy hens, ducks and geese do lay, and gather up their eggs, and when they wax broody, set then there as no beasts, swine, nor other vermin hurt them. And thou must know that all whole footed fowls will sit a month, and all cloven footed fowls will sit but three weeks, except a peahen, and great fowls as cranes, and bustards, and such other. And when they have bought forth their birds, so see, that they be kept from the gleyd (?), crows, fullymartens, and other vermin.

And in the beginning of March, or a little afore, is time for a wife to make her garden, and to get as many good seeds and herbs as she can, specially such as be good for the pot, and to eat: and as oft as need shall require, it must be weeded, for else the weeds will overgrow the herbs. And also in March is time to sow flax and hemp, for I have heard old housewives say, that better is March hurds (?) than April flax, the reason appeareth: but how it should be sown, weeded, pulled, reaped, watered, washed, dried, beaten, breaked, tawed, heckled, spun, wound, warped and woven, it needeth not for me to show, for they be wise enough, and thereof may they make sheets, boardcloths, towels, shirts, smocks and such other necessaries, and therefore let thy distaff be always ready for a pastime, that thou be not idle. And undoubted a woman can not get her living honestly with spinning on the distaff, but it stoppeth a cap and must needs be had. The boles of flax when they be ripiled of, mus be riddled from the weeds, and made dry with the sun, to get out the seeds. How be it that one manner of linseed, called loken seed, will not open by the sun, and therefore when they be dry, they must be sore bruised and broken, the wives know how, and then winnowed and kept dry, till their time come again.
It is convenient for a husband to have sheep of him own for many causes, and then may his wife have part of the wool, to make her husband and herself some clothes. And at the least way, she may have the locks of the sheep. either to make clothes or blankets and covelets or both, and if she have no wool of her own, she may take wool to spin of cloth makers, and by that mean she may have a convenient living, and many times do other works.

It is a wife’s occupation to know all many of corns, to make malt, to wash and wring, to make hay, shear corn, and in time of need to help her husband to fill the muck wain or dung cart, drive the plough, to load hay, corn and such other. And to go or ride to the market, to sell butter, cheese, milk, eggs, chickens, capons, hens, pigs, geese and all manner of corns. And also to buy all manner of necessary things belonging to household, and to make a true reckoning and account to her husband, what she hath received, and what she hath paid. And if the husband go to the market, to buy or sell, as they oft do, he then to show his wife in like manner. For if one of them should use to deceive the other, he deceiveth himself, and he is not like to thrive. And therefore they must be true either to other."