The chemise dress 1700s-1950s

1950s chemise dress by Cristobal Balenciaga
1950s chemise dress by Cristobal          Balenciaga. suitable for day wear

Having two rather lovely 1950s chemise dresses in the shop, I decided to do a little investigating into their history. This style is not one I see often, perhaps because they are a bit of a ‘marmite’ dress. I am terribly fond of them and wish I had the body shape that would show one off to its finest, however, many people do not appreciate the design. The chemise is worn  loose at the waist, concealing the female form so greatly emphasised by Dior in the late 40s and throughout the 1950s by designers across the world.

dior's new look dress
A New Look dress from Christian Dior’s 1947 spring/           summer collection


Both Balenciaga and Dior sent the chemise dress down the runway in 1957 (which I shall come back to later), however, this was by no means the beginning of the chemise.

From the 1700s up until the 1920s, the chemise was a commonly worn undergarment. It was loose fitting and knee length with a straight silhouette.

1760s chemise
A chemise from the 1960s worn beneath corset with panniers


1920s chemise
The chemise in the 1920s

However, in the 1780s, the chemise was to be worn by some, including the French Queen, as an outer garment. The chemise dress was constructed from layers of muslin that hung loosely, being given shape by a sash around the waist. The dress looked very like the undergarment after which is was named.

Marie Antoinette caused public outrage when she had her portrait painted wearing a chemise dress. Had the Queen been painted in her underwear?!

The chemise a la Reine, as was then known, gained in popularity, but the comfortable style continued to raise speculation and controversy. You will find much written about the chemise a la Reine, including this blog post The Chemise a la Reine by the Fashion Historian.

Marie Antoinette-Lebrun 1783
Marie Antoinette wearing a chemise a la      Reine, painted by Lebrun 1783

In the 1910s, the chemise dress once more became popular. A column like dress, belted at the waist.

1910s chemise dress
Early 1910s chemise dresses

Whilst the dresses of the 1920s  were more like the chemise than any that came before them, the were not known as such. The next time the chemise was seen on the fashionista was in the 1940s, again, the chemise dress was a shapeless garment that was intended to be belted at the waist.

1940s chemise dress
Dressmaking pattern for a chemise dress in the 1940s

Belted chemise dresses remained popular into, and throughout the 1950s, and then came 1957.  It was Dior’s final show, and one which caused quite a stir. That year both he and Balenciaga showed dresses that were constructed without even a passing nod to the waist, indeed, the 1950s chemise often ballooned out at the waist.

The chemise had men shaking their fists, it was deemed ugly, concealing the feminine form so emphasised previously. Of course, they were also revered, for being both modern and comfortable. A rebellion against the tightly corseted waists that had become fashionable. This was a look that was altogether new, it was something quite unique.

chemise dress by Christian Dior
chemise dress by Christian Dior


1957 dior chemise dress
1957 Dior chemise dress


1950s chemise dress
1950s chemise dress available from Gingermegs Vintage

Shop for 1950s dresses, chemise and otherwise here Gingermegs Vintage dresses.