Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fashion History Time!

che·mise \shə-ˈmēz, sometimes -ˈmēs\ n 1 : a woman's one-piece undergarment 2 : a loose straight-hanging dress

Middle English, shirt, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin camisia
13th century

Now that I've finished the chemise dress from Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing, I've found myself curious about the history of the chemise dress in general. (Yeah, it probably would have made more sense to be curious about this before I made the dress, but my mind doesn't always work that way.)

Since I've been in possession of VoNBBS, I've pretty much thought of the chemise dress featured as "that dress I don't like." As I made the dress, I gained a new appreciation for it, and also some bemusement. Like I said yesterday, this shape strikes me as so contemporary, and not at all the silhouette I associate with the 50's.

But obviously, the chemise shape is not a modern one. It seems to actually be one of the oldest forms of clothing, which continues to reincarnate itself. It was worn as a unisex tunic in the middle ages, as the scandalous chemise a la Reine popularized by Marie Antoinette, and under ladies' corsets in the 19th century. I've found several self-identified chemise dress patterns from the early 50's, so perhaps it was a shape that experienced another resurgence then. Google the word "chemise" today, and the results are a bit R-rated.

In any case, the 50's patterns seem to have these things in common: no waistline seam and no waistline shaping. In most cases, a belt was worn to cinch it in. But still, the shift silhouette is such a divergence from the wasp waist look of the late 40's and early 50's, and I find that fascinating. Perhaps it was an early 50's idea of comfort wear, instead of leggings or whatever it is that people wear for comfort now.

Anyway, fun stuff. The gathered skirt from VoNBBS is really a dirndl, so perhaps I'll make that my next research project!

P.S. If you want some really interesting insights into the chemise, you must check out this article from MUM, the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health. Yes, that exists. Apparently.


  1. MUM has me curious! Uhhh, to be a

    Thanks for the post. I often wonder about the history but never took the time!

  2. In theory, I love the chemise style of the 50s, but it tends to look a bit silly on me even with a belt! That last pattern you posted is tempting me though--so cute! :)

    A similar design that springs to mind while on the topic of the chemise dress is Claire McCardell's late 30s "monastic dress". (There is a picture of a early 50s variation on that design here: It worked in the same principle of the chemise in that it was an unfitted design that was meant to be cinched according to the wearer's needs and fashion sense. The original came with narrow spaghetti-like ties, and later ones used wider belts and sashes. I dare say the reason it doesn't show up more in 40s fashion is because of the materials restrictions during the war.

    Oh, and I just had to chime in, that having made and worn a version of Marie Antoinette's chemise a la reine, it's a lot of fabric! ;) hehe! Definitely not as comfortable as the 1950s incarnations of the style... ;)

  3. Casey, that monastic dress is fascinating! And thanks for the link about Claire McCardell. There's a sidewalk plaque with her name on it in the Garment District (it's like the Hollywood stars for fashion designers). I've walked over it many times, but didn't know who she was!

  4. In 1957 a diversionist group of Paris designers led by Balenciaga and Givenchy introduced the Chemise dress. While chemise dresses were at first worn with belts, after Paris popularized the chemise in mid summer American women began to leave their belts off. Every woman that I saw wearing a chemise back in the 1950's let them hang straight without a belt. The chemise was quite popular with younger women and teenage girls. Two of my teachers wore the chemise, as did several teenage girls in my classes. However, back then the chemise was quite controversial. In a pole taken in 1958, 9 out of 10 men hated the chemise labelling it the "sack" dress. The pole also showed that 86% of boys felt the same way. I was one of those 14% of boys that actually loved the style (and still do). I found it to be a refreshing new look, very elegant and sensual. The fact that many husbands would not let their wives wear the chemise back then probably was mostly responsible for its unfortunate early demise within 1-2 years. But fashion designers persisted and brought back the chemise in the 1960's as the shift dress which we all know was immensely popular. Also, if you remember the chemise made a triumphant return in 1983 ... for a while it was everywhere. Anyway those are my memories of the chemise dress back in the 1950's.

  5. I have found the 50's chemise dress, that I recentlt finished in gorgeous 70's print cotton, to be great for a certain time in a womens life.....After baby is born. No pesky waist and buttons for breastfeeding. Maybe this was a needed divergence from the wasp waist for new mums of that era?

  6. Which pattern is the VoNBBS chemise made from? Is it related at all to the first one in this post?


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