The chemise, called a "smock" or "shift" in the 16th century, was a simple garment worn next to the skin to protect clothing from sweat and body oils. Chemise is the French term. Italians called it a "Camicia". The English called the same shirt a "Smock" and the Irish called it a "Line" (pronounced LAY-na).
A chemise or shift was the foundation of most multilayered garments. As such it varied from utilitarian to decorative according to type of material used and visibility. It was used in various forms from early 10th century to 15th century Italian through to the end of our period. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was usually the only piece of clothing that was washed regularly.
The earliest smocks were simple shirt-like garments, and came into being in Anglo-Saxon times. Many European countries also used smocking on their garments. They gradually developed in the 18th and early 19th century into a fuller garment with much more room to move while working. The fullness was gathered in tubes or reeds at both back and front. These garments, known as 'smock frocks, were worn in England by the shepherds, carters and wagoners in the 1700s. Not much is recorded of the wearing apparel of the working class up to this period, but occasionally in paintings of rural life one can see them.
Smocks were made of fine linen; many of the better quality smocks were made of what we now call "handkerchief-weight" linen. These smocks hung to just about knee to calf-length, on average. There were several varieties of smocks worn in the 16th century; below is a listing of the main types.
SHIRT SMOCKS are thus named because they are similar to a nobleman's shirt and have a short opening at the front. They are usually shorter than round frocks.
COAT SMOCKS were worn mainly by the Welsh shepherds. They were buttoned at the front and had a large, cape-like collar to protect the wearer from the wet and misty conditions in Wales. They were knee length or longer and usually made of wool.
The tradition of wearing a smock had declined by the
1800's, and it was rare to see them being worn after this
time. It was about then that smocking became a fashion statement
on tea gowns, children's wear and nightdresses. When lawn
tennis became popular in the 1800's, bodices were smocked
with silk and caught at the waist by a sash. Today, once
more, smocking is very popular on babies