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What is a Chemise?

A chemise is typically sleeveless and comes to the mid thigh.
Women often wore a chemise under their corsets.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2014
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The modern chemise is often thought of a short lingerie garment. It may be worn as part of a baby doll set, with tap pants or bikini underwear, or it may be a short, sleeveless gown that comes to about mid thigh. The garment may be sold in lingerie sets with a pretty robe and is usually made in silk or satin materials, with lace trim. Many are meant to be deliberately provocative, which is a far cry from the original intent of the item.

In French, the word chemise merely means "shirt." It was probably first worn by men and women in the Middle Ages as a protective layer between clothing and the body. This garment might also be called a shift, a smock, or a variety of other names. A colloquial term in the Southern US in the 19th century was shimmy.

The medieval version generally had long sleeves and was simply a loosely cut garment that was either floor or shirt length. It might also be worn as a simple nightgown, although a plain nightgown was sometimes called a shift. With daily bathing not common in the middle ages, the chemise was one way to keep outer clothes looking and smelling cleaner. It would soak up body oil or dirt, but was lightweight and more easily washed than gowns or men’s outerwear.

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While men normally wore the chemise directly under their clothing, women often wore it under their corsets and petticoats as these items became popular wear for the upper classes. When bras and panties became popular, many women started wearing the chemise over their underwear, leading to the modern half and full-slip.

Many men still don a chemise, though they might laugh to be told they’re wearing something so closely associated with lingerie. The t-shirt worn under many dress shirts is essentially a revamped version of this garment. Some younger men don’t see the necessity of wearing an undershirt of any sort, but many men feel they are appropriate when wearing light dress shirts, or for providing an extra layer of warmth.

For women, fully lined garments meant that wearing a chemise or any type of slip is often relatively unnecessary. Women can benefit from wearing at least a sleeveless chemise or slip under garments that are not lined and can be seen through, however. Mostly, the modern garment has been relegated to the status of lingerie, meant to be seen only in private and possibly romantic circumstances.

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sunnySkys
Post 10

@Pharoah - I definitely favor nightgowns and chemises made from cotton. Cotton is much more breathable than satin (or the polyester that some cheaper chemises are made out of), and for sleeping, that is a must!

If you're going to be using a chemise as lingerie, then I can see buying one made of satin. Satin is definitely a bit "sexier" than cotton is, and lingerie doesn't necessarily have to be as comfortable as a garment used just for sleeping in.

Pharoah
Post 9

I have a few chemises I like to wear as nightgowns. Most of the ones I have came in a set, with a cute robe. My black chemise is my favorite! I like chemises because they're a little bit cuter than just a regular nightgown, but still very comfortable. As someone else mentioned, I definitely prefer a cotton chemise over a chemise made of satin or another material.

LoriCharlie
Post 8

@Azuza - The history of the sheer chemise is pretty interesting. I bet people living in the Middle Ages would be pretty surprised to learn that the simple chemise is now used as a piece of lingerie!

I think it's also interesting that slips evolved from chemises. I'm not surprised though, because slips serve a similar function. They act as a layer between the skin and the outer garments. And of course, they also make sure people can't see through some clothing that isn't lined.

Azuza
Post 7

I think it's so funny that so many garments that were once used for function are now used for lingerie. A lace chemise is a good example, and so is a corset. Corsets were once used as undergarments, but now they're lingerie, and I've even seen some that were meant to be worn as a shirt!

drtroubles
Post 6

It's funny to think that a man's undershirt is actually just a modernized version of the medieval chemise. I have quite a few undershirts in my dresser, thanks to my wife who doesn't want me making it any harder for her to clean my dress shirts.

I suppose I can see why wearing an extra layer is a good thing when you are trying to keep the main garment clean. Even with the washing machines at are disposal today doing laundry is still a pain.

Luckily for men, the modern under shirts are quite comfortable. I will just consider it an added bonus that they keep my wife happy.

manykitties2
Post 5

When I got married my girlfriends surprised me with a lovely chemise set for my wedding night. We were having a bachelorette party and they thought it would make the perfect gift for me, because I usually dress so conservatively.

The chemise was white and pretty shear and had some interesting lace detailing. While it is something I would normally never wear, I figured for my wedding night why not go with something special?

My husband loved the chemise set and has since gotten me quite a few more to spice things up a bit. I don't mind as they're pretty and who doesn't like cute gifts?

Sierra02
Post 4

@babylove - Your cotton chemise does sound unique and stylish. I wear mostly satin chemise, both long and short. I first started wearing them a couple of years ago when I started my new job as a paralegal. I'm often in the public's eye so dresses and dressy suits are very common attire.

The satin feels good against my skin and just makes me feel more dressed up. Anymore, I actually feel naked without one.

babylove
Post 3

I found a very unique vintage white chemise that's made out of one hundred percent cotton. It has an extremely unusual shape to it that's sort of like a waist length bib that covers both the front and the back.

The underarms are completely open with strings attached to the bottom for tying it on. But the thing that I like the most about it is the beautiful crocheted ruffle collar. It's in perfect condition and looks great with most anything I choose to wear over it.

MsClean
Post 2

My friends all call me old-fashioned because I always where a silk chemise under all of my garments. I wear a lot of designer tops so I feel like it gives me some added protection against daily wear. Plus it cuts down on my dry cleaning bill because it's much cheaper to hand wash a little silk camisole.

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