Tuesday, 11 December 2012

When is a white dress not a white dress?

When is a white dress not a white dress? When it's a chemise!

 "Life of St Cuthbert" (British Library Add MS 39943, last quarter of the 12th century).

Above is shown the only illustration of a women’s undergarment that I've seen in many, many illustrations (this was found by David Rayner). We can't be sure this is not a dress, but it seems probable. The features of this garment are consistent with the features of the garment worn under a dress in illustrations - tight slightly wrinkled sleeves to the wrist, folds of garment at the feet, a keyhole neckline tight about the neck.

The garment appears to be a tunic, tightly fitted to the forearms, looser on the upper arms and body, with a keyhole neckline. This gives us a general layout for a women’s chemise, (although a noble ladies chemise may differ a little from a nuns), but does not give us any construction details.

Unfortunately no female 12th century garments exist, and Romanesque artwork glosses over fine details such as seams. Seeing that this differs little in shape (only length) from male garments, we must turn to them for details. The extant men’s garments are mostly clerical garments, but are expected to differ in only small details of construction from secular garments. Indeed a great many clerical albs feature sleeves which are much tighter in the lower arm than upper arm, very full of skirt, and the sleeve length and garment length are often much greater than seems practical for a human body. Keyhole necklines exist, but other forms of neckline are very common. There seem to be a great many parallels between those garments and this illustration, so this does suggest that albs are a suitable source of inspiration for chemises, if used with care.

One final thing this illustration has taught me concerns kilting up the skirts of a chemise. I've tried kilting up the skirts of my longest chemise at the waist. It's a quite effective way of shortening a chemise. I put on a belt, then pull a large fold of the chemise over the belt. I then get a friend to help pull the chemise down to my desired length. The chemise can be ankle of floor length, longer in back, whatever length I want.  It seldom falls down, only under duress of the most vigorous dancing. I find this an extremely practical way to adjust my chemise length. The only requirement is that there is enough fabric to fold up, ie that the chemise is at least say 10cm longer than the longest belted length you want it to be.  The only inconvenience of this technique is an added bulge at the hips caused by the chemise - if the garment worm over the chemise isn't kilted itself, this can look a little silly to modern eyes. My looser Austrian dress is not so tight that this is a problem, and stiff enough to ignore such effects though, so it works perfectly with this technique.


Cathy Raymond said...

I think you're right about it being a chemise. It looks from the illustration as though the woman is receiving one of the Sacraments--perhaps baptism or confirmation--which makes it likelier that she would be in a simple white garment such as a chemise.

Claudia und Joachim (Groschi) said...

Yep. this is a chemis or a under garment, in german we call this "Unterkleid".
The woman must be King Æthelwald's sister.
"fol. 60r - “Miniature of Cuthbert anointing an ill girl with holy oil and healing her immediately, from Chapter 30 of Bede’s prose Life of St Cuthbert.“

People that are ill don't ly in their best clothes in bed^^

Teffania said...

Hi Cathy, as Claudia has said, it's a girl getting healed, rather than baptism or confirmation.

Claudia, I can't *definatively* prove it's a chemise/shirt. I think it's quite probable, but nothing in this image makes it certain for me - have you other information? I know it's a subtle distinction highly probable versus certain, but I think it's important. either way I'll use this assumption to influence the way I make chemises.

As for people not wearing their best clothes to bed - the problem is that 12th C manuscripts aren't entirely realistic. I can show you biblical scenes of fornication with two fully dressed people lying side by side in bed. In fact nearly all bed scenes in 12th C artwork are fashionably dressed, so I'd say they are often drawn in their best clothes in bed in the 12thC (despite reality).

In English we have the word "underdress" and it is used fairly frequently in reenactment. I tend to avoid using it to refer to 12thC garments because the english word means the layer under the dress which can be the layer between the chemise/shirt/skinlayer and the dress where 3 layers are worn. I think 3 layers (not counting overgarments including extra dresses, surcoats etc) would have been worn very infrequently in the 12th C, but victorian era costume historians thought that couldn't possibly be so (so indecent!) and decided the chainse must be a mid layer. Because many people still red those bad costume books, I deliberately don't use the english word "underdress" to avoid confusing people and make sure they are clear on the differences. Isn't it interesting how languages differ? Chemise is also a lot closer to the anglo-norman french word for the garment.

Ich werde gern wissen was die worte feur Unterkleid in der 12jh. wurde? Ins Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch findet mich keine ahnung, und glaube ich das meine schlectes Deutsch sind nicht das Problem.
(suche "*hemd*")

Claudia und Joachim (Groschi) said...

Hi, there :o)
Mittelhochdeutsch is the underdress called "niderkleit/nidergewant" or "hemde/hemede"
You may be certain that the dress is a chemise.
My found for the first using of surcoats by women is the charite-sur-loire Psalter, illumination "month of august" (about 1190-1210)
Perhaps i can find some underdress pictures in my collection.
I'm Joachim :o)
My Claudia cvan speak and write english very well - MY english is lousy, sorry for that.

Claudia und Joachim (Groschi) said...

another found for a women's surcoat (forgotten by me):
between 1150-1190 "Georgius zothorus, liber astrologiae" fol. 34v Frauensurcot.
The manuscript must been written after 1170, i think.

Teffania said...

Sorry Joachim for calling you Claudia.

Sein English ist wirklich viel bessar als mein Deutsch!

Thanks for the Mittelhochdeutsch name of the chemise.

That picture of a surcoat is very rare - a very nice thing to find!
(http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=20807 for everyone else)