The Shift to Chemise

Shift to Chemise 1

Shifting from shifts to chemises.

Language is a funny thing. I suppose we’re all guilty of following fads in our choice of words, and we all have particular phrases we find irritating or amusing – in other people.  I recently came across an example by Jane Austen, written in 1817, just as the polite name of a woman’s undergarment was changing.

Your Anne is dreadful – . But nothing offends me so much as the absurdity of not being able to pronounce the word Shift. I could forgive her any follies in English, rather than the Mock Modesty of that french word…’

So presumably Miss Austen was still wearing shifts, when other ladies were beginning to wear chemises. She wasn’t alone, however, in her annoyance with linguistic affectations. Pantalogia, a New Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Comprehending a Complete Series of Human Genius, Learning, and Industry, Alphabetically Arranged; with a General Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Words (1819) has this to say:

CHEMISE, the French word for that article of linen under dress which when worn by men is called a shirt, by women a shift. Some few modern English ladies, with an affected squeamishness of delicacy, restrict the term always so as to denote the article of female dress chemise de femme; but as every one knows what they mean by the expression, and we see no reason why every one should not know what they mean, we recommend the use of the old English term, and the abandonment of the corresponding French word.

Was there really any difference between a shift and a chemise? Well, yes and no. No, because they both referred to the same lady’s undergarment. Yes, because when the word “shift” was used (up until the early 19th century), the garment was usually made of linen and was simpler in cut.  As the word “chemise” became standard, variations in pattern and trimming were increasing and the chemise was more often made of cotton.

So much for the term; now was there any significant difference in the French and English methods of making this garment? I haven’t found anything consistently, unmistakably,  irrefutably, definitively identifiable. When I examine an old chemise, whether in a book, online, or in person, I can’t raise an eyebrow knowingly and say, Ah yes, English, 1832.

But with the interest and expertise I see popping up in blogs and books, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has – or will – come up with a list of distinguishing features.

If you are curious (or courageous) and would like to compare for yourself, below is a pattern and description, 1840, from a French periodical. (Please excuse my awkward translation. If you are fluent in French and English, I beg you to let me know and help me correct it!) English patterns and instructions of the same date are available in the Workwoman’s Guide.

Shift to Chemise 2

A pattern for a lady’s chemise, 1840.

No. 8 is a woman’s chemise. For ten chemises, purchase 25 meters of percale; take off a meter, and cut the rest into ten pieces; fold these pieces into two; on side No. 1, cut the gore that you add to the other side, cut by a thread as shown in No. 2; inside cut two gussets; indent around the neck; this is shown in No. 3; the sleeves are cut on the bias. Gather slightly on top of the arm and hem the bottom with backstitching. The armholes have to be a little curved under the arm. Take the remaining meter, measure a narrow band along the edge, then cut twenty pieces for double shoulder straps; these pieces are indicated by dotted lines; place a narrow piece of tape between the shoulder strap and its lining, there you insert the sleeve and backstitch, and you fold the lining over; gather the top of the chemise, as indicated, and insert a narrow tape of a meter in length; then cover this piece of tape with a band of percale; using backstitching and hemming, then fold under. Mark the chemise over the left gusset.

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What I Didn’t Wear

1910s A

A cautious venture into costuming by someone who doesn’t do costumes.

As much as I adore historic (and historical) costume, and as much as I loved playing dress-up when I was a child, I confess that I haven’t dressed in costume myself. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, at least a little. But I lacked Means, Motive, and Opportunity. It can cost an awful lot, I’m not much of a seamstress, and I’ve had nowhere to wear it.

Last month, however, I planned to attend a Heritage Day celebration and dinner-on-the-grounds, where everyone was invited to dress in clothing from anytime during the past 175 years. Finally – Motive and Opportunity!

1910s E

The modern skirt, way beyond my skill level.

1910s F

A view from the back, with lots of pretty pleats.

I solved the Means problem by using stuff I already had: a modern skirt which looked somewhat appropriate for the 1910s, the classic “Armistice Blouse” Folkwear pattern, and a good supply of white muslin to make it.

The last ingredient I needed was persistence. And it took some, seriously. While an ordinary seamstress can sew that shirt in an afternoon, it took me a whole weekend, not counting the hand finishing. And I even put the arms in the right way, first time! Maybe I could sew faster if I sewed more often?

The fit was nice, the collar lay smoothly, and the tucked front went together easily. The cuffs were the only disappointment. I didn’t like the way they looked when buttoned and turned back, because there was no allowance for the overlap in the pattern. Removing the lace trim helped, but if I ever make another one, I’ll have to fiddle with the cuffs.

1910s B

Martha Mary, a dress form born in 1916, was perfect for modeling the shirtwaist.

The pattern is easy to adapt to different trimmings, but I wanted to keep it simple so that I could wear a little lingerie pin set (see my Etsy store) on the vestee.

1910s C

A closer view, showing the triple chain set of lingerie pins on the front.

Tiny bar pins were very popular in the early 1900s, and went by many different names: baby pins, cuff, collar, waist, lace, lingerie pins, etc. I think most people now use them for dolls or christening gowns, but I’d always wanted to try them out on a shirtwaist.

With a hat, a vintage handbag (or pocketbook, as my grandmother would have said), gloves, and black oxfords, I was all set!

1910s D

A nice plain back: my skill level.

Of course if you noticed the blog title, you can guess where this is going. I didn’t get to wear my costume as planned. Between the weather forecast and volunteering to help with food, all this work wasn’t going to work. Too dressy. Did I let it spoil the day? No way! I transferred the accessories to a more “picnic-y” vintage-looking dress (that I didn’t sew), and had a wonderful time. I’ll save this outfit for another day. Minus the hat and gloves, it would probably pass unnoticed in a room of gray business suits and white shirts!

1910s G

Dinner on the grounds in the South requires a hand fan. I couldn’t resist a chance to speak for the ladies.

Up Her Sleeve

Shift 1 Sleeve

Here is the sleeve slipped into the first shift.

As a follow-up to the previous post – and a helpful comment, thank you! – I’ve tried slipping the sleeve (cuff, undersleeve, engageante?) into the sleeve of a linen shift. Well, three different shifts. Above is the first. Very nice fit!

The next one, below, is an even better fit.

Shift 2 Sleeve

Just about perfect! You’ll notice the sleeve length on this shift, unlike the first one above, extends past the gusset.

The last one I tried just for comparison. It’s obviously a wider sleeve, and I have a feeling that the shift was perhaps of an earlier date, and the sleeve was cut off to fit later fashions. And after looking at a few over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was rather common. Although a shift didn’t require as much work as man’s shirt, the tiny stitches worked on fine linen were very tedious to do, and clothing was valuable!

Shift 3 Sleeve

Sorry Cinderella, it’s not quite right. This last shift is in the original “attic find” condition. Can you tell?

Cuff Links – to the Past

The Mystery! Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did She wear them with?

The Mystery. Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did she wear them with?

It’s summertime, as you can tell by the artfully posed hydrangea, and time for a little mystery. Every now and then I come across examples of plain sewing that are rather puzzling. This pretty pair of sleeves (or cuffs) are not like any I’ve seen before.

They certainly do look early nineteenth century. The gathered section is a very delicate white muslin with stripe pattern. The flat section is an extremely fine linen, the kind of linen used for infant clothing and men’s “shirt bosoms.”

On the muslin end of the sleeve there’s a triple row of gathered cording, a feature that was popular in the early 1800s. The linen end has a narrow hem and is divided all the way to the gathers, almost like it was meant to fold back. The sewing is neat and tiny, with an occasional clumsy stitch, just along the gathers.

Sleeve Cuff 7

Gathers from the inside.

And speaking of the gathers… the method used to attach them is not commonly used for joining a flat to a gathered part in most of the plain sewing I’ve seen – a type of felling? It appears the linen and muslin were half-backstitched together, then felled, with a stitch in each gather.

Gathers from the outside.

Gathers from the outside.

Well, silly me. Of course the usual method of inserting gathers into a band and then sewing them on both the inside and outside wouldn’t work here: there’s only one layer to the band!

The blue cotton marking thread is almost invisible now, but it is miniscule. The height of the letters is .4 centimeter (just over 1/8 inch), and each stitch is made over two threads. Early marking charts and samplers did not have a “J” but used the letter “I” instead. So was the owner “J R” or “I R”?

Sleeve Cuff 2

Blue cotton marking, “I R” – who was she?

Sleeve Cuff 8

It’s easier to see when held against the light.

I think my favorite bit of handwork here is the mending. These sleeves were worn enough to fade the marking, but I don’t know if the repair is due to a worn spot or a tear. Either way, the fix is a work of art.

Sleeve Cuff 5

The mend from the inside.

Sleeve Cuff 4

The mend from the outside.

Sleeve Cuff 9

A cord to tie.

Just above the marking is a fine cotton cord, obviously meant to attach the sleeve to another garment. Both are still in place and appear original.

Well, so much for my observations and (right or wrong) interpretation. On to my questions.

Why are the sleeves so big? The circumference of the linen end is about ten inches, the muslin cording about nine inches. My scrawny wrists are less than five and a half, and so the sleeves look absurdly baggy when I slip them on. And even men’s shirts of the era don’t usually have cuffs that big, so it can’t be just me!

What were they worn with? The total length is about seven inches, so they’re really too long to fit the end of a long sleeve anyway, without some peculiar looking bunching up. Were they not intended for ladies’ apparel? Were they worn with some special type of  clothing, religious or a costume?

Sleeve Cuff 3

Open slit in the upper band.

Why is there a slit in the linen band? It’s configured so that the hems are not meant to be turned back. Why is there no way to adjust the corded gathered end? They are a fixed size.

Hmm. As I was trying them over my hand and onto my wrist, I tried slipping them up my (correspondingly scrawny) arm, past the elbow. Aha! A perfect fit! And the opening in the linen allows for movement or shifting around a bit on my arm. So is that the answer?

I’m so accustomed to seeing the underleeves that were worn in the mid-nineteenth century, or the cuffs that have been worn for centuries, that I wasn’t expecting something different like short sleeves. Were these intended for wear with the short sleeved gowns of the Regency era? I don’t know.

I’m not (always) shy about sharing my costume and sewing blunders and misunderstandings. So if you have the answer up your sleeve, please – do tell!