Called kemes or kemse in medieval English, this garment was worn next to the body. It was usually of linen and worn by both sexes in the early medieval period. From the 13th to early 14th centuries the chemise and smock were often recorded together as distinct garments. “Hire chemise smal and hwit … and hire smoc hwit” (ca.1200. Trinity College Homilies, 163).
At that date the chemise was sometimes coloured and worn over the smock. Subsequently, the chemise was known as a smock when worn by a woman and a shirt when worn by a man. From the early 14th century, the term chemise disappeared until imported from France in the late 18th century as a polite name for a smock or shift.
The chemise was made of linen, homespun or cotton; it was voluminous and knee-length, oblong in shape, with short sleeves and untrimmed. Until ca. 1850 the square neck often had a front flap which fell over the top of the corset. In 1876 pleated gussets were introduced to allow for the shape of the breasts. Subsequently it became elaborately trimmed with frills, tucks and lace. In the 1890s it was gradually replaced by combinations.
Often a shorthand term for a chemise dress rather than an undergarment.