Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Brief History of the Humble Chemise

Lately, it seems as though I’m living in the heart of the Rain Forest.  Daily, heavy thunderstorms only add to the sauna-like humidity, while temperatures reach energy-sapping heights. 

Have the Pool Boy Bring my Cocktail in 10 Minutes When I’ve Finished my Nap.

When I was a kid and the thermometer on the back porch shot past 90˚F, my British grandmother would say, “It’s hot enough to make a girl want to sit around in her shimmy.”  Sitting around in one’s shimmy was not something a well-brought-up young lady did in my grandmother’s day, no matter how hot it got. 

Lady Elgin being transported in a silver tonjon.
Even in the sweltering heat of India, no concessions were made for climate, and the Victorian British Lady was expected to remain buttoned and corseted at all times – and so she did.  No lounging about in a shimmy for her.  How she stood it, I’ll never know. 

Just thinking about, much less mentioning, a lady’s shimmy (undergarment) was considered a bit naughty; but, singing about it was even naughtier.  In the 1920’s, it became the subject of a wildly popular jazz tune called “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” 


Flapper Doing the Shimmy - Courtesy of Glamour Daze

The tune, in turn, gave rise to a dance craze called the Shimmy.  There are quite a few legends about the origins of “Sister Kate,” but my favorite is that it referred to the notorious madam of one of New Orleans most exclusive brothels.   Stabbed to death by her lover, Kate Townsend was given a high-class funeral as befitting her status in the community.  In any case, whoever “Sister Kate” was, she inspired a generation of cocktail-loving Flappers to shimmy into the wee hours of the morning. 

By the 1950’s, the shimmy was simply referred to as a slip, a sleek body-hugging petticoat that you slipped on before slipping into your dress.  


In 1958, Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) shocked and delighted audiences in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, said to be his personal favorite, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.   Taylor’s character, the sultry Maggie the Cat, spends a great deal of the film lounging around in her slip/shimmy.  In the oppressive heat of the Mississippi Delta, where the play is set, can you blame her, particularly if you look like THAT in a slip?  

Two years later, Taylor turned up the heat again in Butterfield 8, where she played a pricey call girl (“For a good time call Butterfield 8.”).  Different movie, different slip, same gorgeous, sexy Liz. 

So, the slip came from the shimmy, but where did the shimmy come from? 

The shimmy came from the French word chemise, which now refers to an outer garment, the shirt, but once referred to an under garment worn by both men and women. 

Joos van Cleve’s Portrait of François I (ca 1532-1533)
In this portrait of François I (1494-1547), King of France, what looks like white trim on the neck of his garment is actually a full-length chemise worn underneath.  The chemise, made of washable material, such as muslin, protected the elaborate outer garments, which could not be washed, by absorbing body oils and odors.  In looking at old paintings, you often see the chemise peaking out of necklines and sleeves.  In fact, it became something of a favorite fashion embellishment. 


Madame du Barry en chemise 1781 Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun
In 1781, Madame du Barry (1743-1793), the last official mistress (Maîtresse-en-titre) of King Louis XV of France, who had died seven years earlier, posed for this portrait wearing only her muslin chemise.  It provoked a bit of a scandale, like almost everything du Barry did, but it soon became quite the fashion rage among the ladies of the Court.  

Marie Antoinette in Muslin Chemise de la Reine 1783 Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun

The young Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) may have taken a dim view of du Barry’s morals, but she clearly approved of her fashion sense.  Two years after la du Barry had herself painted in her chemise, Marie Antoinette had herself painted, by the same artist, in hersOvernight, court seamstresses were busy filling orders for la Chemise de la Reine (the Queen’s Chemise), a slightly more elaborate version of the one Madame du Barry had worn. 

Ten years later, the two women would share more than a fashion statement.  Tragically, they would share the same fate, only two months apart, delivered by another famous Madame – Madame La Guillotine.  Madame du Barry was 49; Queen Marie Antoinette was only 38. 


Empress Joséphine of France 1812 Firmin Massot
The Napoleonic era, with its empire waist and loose, flowing lines, finally saw women free of constricted clothing, and the chemise was an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe.  This portrait of Joséphine (1763-1814) en chemise was painted just two years before her death and three years after Napoleon divorced her for a younger woman, who could and did provide him with an heir. 

Joséphine's chemise de nuit - cambric embroidery, lace-fringed hem Courtesy of Gogmsite 
Following their divorce, Joséphine went to live in her beloved Château de Malmaison in Rueil.  Malmaison is truly a magnificent place that, despite its opulence, feels like the much-loved home it was.  Mementos of her life with Napoleon are everywhere, along with an amazing collection of Joséphine’s clothes from the simple chemise to the former Empress’s most ornate court gowns. 

Joséphine is buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul.  Napoleon was in exile in Elba when news reached him of her death, whereupon he shut himself up in his room for two days, refusing to see or talk to anyone.   Seven years later, on his death bed, the last word Napoleon uttered was “Joséphine.” 


  1. Simply wonderful M-T! I absolutely adored Elizabeth Taylor who epitomised natural beauty at its best (not like many today who are artificially enhanced).
    Thank you for your wonderful writings.

    1. Delighted you enjoyed this post. It was really fun doing the research and putting it together. Wasn't Liz just a total "freak of nature" (i.e., born w/incomparable beauty). I'm just now in the middle of reading "The Richard Burton Diaries," and am loving every word. I think that may have inspired me.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

      Cheers, M-T

  2. Love the history behind this M-T, and as I was scrolling down I was already thinking of character Maggie. Ironic how in the 90's the slip dress made a splash and now it's bak- but it's never had staying power, most likely because of it's poor construction. Most of the time, I think the average consumer doesn't care about workmanship, but as you surmised, I do.

    1. I grew up wearing a slip under all my dresses and skirts and tops -- wouldn't think of putting them on w/out putting on a slip first. I think the beginning of the end was the half-slip, and then, as you correctly point out, the modern, synthetic materials just did not give it the same silky, feminine feel. Plus, there was always the issue of length and whether or not it peeked out from under your dress, which was a real fashion faux pas. We used to let each other know by saying "It's snowing down south." How discreet we were then.

      As always, love your comments.

      Thanks for stopping by, Linda.

      Cheers, M-T

  3. Fun read for a hot day in California. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is one of my favorite movies!
    Thanks M-T for helping me remember that!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. It's still stifling here, too (well north of 90 degrees). I always enjoy that movie. Of course, having Paul Newman to look at, in addition to Liz, doesn't hurt. Talk about two of Hollywood's most Beautiful People!!!

      Thanks for stopping by, Cheri.

      Cheers, M-T

  4. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    Very interesting post with great information about where we all come from, in regard to personal freedom on sweltering hot days.
    We have done some ten years of consulting work in India but we've never known any sweltering hot days there. It can be very dusty instead. Guess they never suffered from such high humidity as we know it here.
    But how true this all is. In the 60s and early 70s I too have worn such a slip. One was a favorite black one and they did fit meticulous and with such a slip you could do without lining in a dress.
    But the slip has totally disappeared...
    Yesterday we enjoyed a swim at our friends' place but while enjoying the warm water, we suddenly had to flee for a heavy thunderstorm. We did not even see it coming; that quick. Here at home, only some 4 miles away in birds eye view, we had not a drop of rain. Sad, we need it so badly. Guess because they're near the river does cause more rain.
    We will have to live through one more hot month before having more pleasant weather!

    1. How funny, ma chère Mariette, I, too, have a beautiful black slip in silk with lace embroidery top and bottom. I've kept it all these years, because it's just so lovely, and every time I slip it on, I feel so feminine and sexy. My husband agrees.

      I think men of our generation found them very sexy on a woman.

      We're still sweltering in the heat here w/heavy rain storms for brief periods every day. I can't wait until the fall -- my favorite time of year.

      Stay cool, my friend.

      Big bisous,

  5. Wow, Elizabeth Taylor was so beautiful!

    I, too, wonder how earlier generations wore so many layers in summer. I loved reading the history you researched, Marie-Thérèse!

    I'm happy we live in more practical times, though sometimes I feel people are a bit too casual when they attend the theater, ballet and sometimes school and work. Coordinated, casual-smart dressing is fine by me, but I wish they'd leave the flip-flops and sweats at home. It's nice to have a reason to dress up sometimes, isn't it? And you feel like a grown-up.

    1. Two BIG THUMBS UP on everything in your comment, Dear Debra. I despise flip-flops on anyone over the age of 10, particularly men (Yuck!!) w/their hairy toes. Sweats definitely have their place, but NOT beyond the gym or the work out area.

      You said something so important "And you feel like a grown-up." Have you ever noticed how many young people refuse to grow up, as exhibited by their speech, behavior and clothing and how many adults dress like their Peter Pan children???

      Thanks for stopping by, Debra.

      Cheers, M-T

  6. My mother still calls her undergarment a 'chemise' - old Notre Dame convent influence, no doubt. I join you in abhorring the sweats-and-flip-flop look. I want to say 'it's for the shower/gym/campsite'.

    1. Dear Pondside,

      I applaud you for wanting to shout "It's for the shower/gym/campsite." We need to hear your voice loud and clear, not that it will do any good, but it will definitely make those of us of like mind feel so much better.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Cheers, M-T

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