The term "chemise dress" has traditionally been used to describe a dress cut straight at the sides and left unfitted at the waist, in the manner of the undergarment known as a chemise. This term has most often been used to describe outer garments during transitional periods in fashion (most notably during the 1780s and the 1950s), in order to distinguish new, unfitted styles from the prevailing, fitted silhouette.
In the eighteenth century, the primary female undergarment was the chemise, or shift, a knee-length, loose-fitting garment of white linen with a straight or slightly triangular silhouette. The term chemise was first used to describe an outer garment in the 1780s, when Queen Marie Antoinette of France popularized a kind of informal, loose-fitting gown of sheer white cotton, resembling a chemise in both cut and material, which became known as the chemise à la reine. After chemise dresses, cut straight and gathered to a high waist with a sash or drawstring, became the dominant fashion, around 1800, there was no longer a need to describe their silhouette, and the term "chemise" reverted almost exclusively to its former meaning.
Dresses were next described as chemises around 1910, when loosely belted, columnar dresses recalling early-nineteenth-century styles became popular. (The chemise was still worn as lingerie, but by the 1920s, it evolved into a hip-length, tubular, camisole-like garment with narrow straps.) Though the straight, unbelted dresses of the 1920s were more like chemises than any previous dress style, and have since been called chemise dresses by historians, the term was only occasionally used at the time. After fashion returned to a more fitted silhouette in the 1930s, the chemise dress reappeared around 1940, this time in the form of a dress cut to fall straight from the shoulders, or gathered into a yoke, but always meant to be worn belted at the waist.
The most important decade of the twentieth century for the chemise dress, however, was the 1950s. Early in that decade, the Parisian couturiers Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga, along with other designers in Europe and the United States, began experimenting with unfitted sheath and tunic dresses, and belted chemise dresses continued to be popular. The major change, however, came in 1957, when both Dior and Balenciaga presented straight, unbelted chemise dresses that bypassed the waist entirely. Called chemises or sacks, these dresses were considered a revolutionary change of direction in fashion, and became the subject of heated debate in the American press; many commentators, particularly men, considered such figure-concealing styles ugly and unnatural, while proponents praised their ease and clean-lined, modern look. (The term "sack" may have been a reference to the eighteenth-century sacque, or sack-back gown, which Balenciaga revived in the form of chemises with back fullness, but it was also an apt description of the bag-like chemise silhouette.)
Waistless styles, both straight and A-line, continued to be controversial over the next several years, but they were gradually incorporated into most wardrobes, and became a staple of 1960s fashion. The term "chemise," however, faded from use early in the 1960s, possibly because the press uproar of 1957 and 1958 had given it negative connotations (or because the lingerie chemise was a distant memory, having last been worn in the 1920s). Straight-cut dresses were now called shifts; more voluminous variants were the muumuu and tent dress. After another period of more fitted garments in the 1970s, unfitted dresses were again revived in the 1980s. Since then, however, women have had the option of choosing from a variety of silhouettes, and unfitted styles have simply been described as straight, or loose-fitting.
Keenan, Brigid. Dior in Vogue. London: Octopus Books, 1981.
Miller, Lesley Ellis. Cristóbal Balenciaga. London: B. T. Bats-ford, Ltd., 1993.
"Topics of the Times." New York Times (28 May 1958). Good contemporary overview and summary of the chemise controversy.