Shifts and shirts are underwear in the eighteenth century. Shifts are the ladies’ equivalent of a shirt. They were the standard undergarment—ladies in the eighteenth century didn’t wear pantaloons or drawers, so this is it when it came to underthings. Petticoats, stays, and gowns are layered over the shift just as breeches, weskits and coats are layered over shirts. A shift also serves as your nightgown, just as a shirt serves as a man’s nighttime clothing. They are generally made of plain old linen, coarser stuff for the working class, finer stuff for the upper crust. Despite vendors’ attempts I have seen to jazz them up with lace trim and ruffles, most originals were super-plain, maybe having a ruffle of the same or finer fabric at the neck or sleeve hems. So, as you can see, quite boring.
But shifts and shirts are quite interesting in another sense.
Fabric was pricey in the eighteenth century. Because fabric was so dear, women got the most out of each yard that they could. Therefore, shifts and shirts were cut in strategic rectangles and triangles that did not waste an inch of fabric. Fabric was woven in standard widths.
Be warned: this is a horrible diagram of shift cutting I made myself in Paint. It’s not to scale, and it’s really ugly. Still, I hope it gives you a good idea on how a single length of fabric could be cut to avoid any waste. The two larger rectangles on the end are sleeves, the two smaller squares are the underarm gussets. The triangles on the side are the sides of the shift, creating some fullness around the legs.
Linen was the cheapest thing you could come by, which explains why it was used for these utilitarian garments. It’s also a pretty strong fabric, and could withstand repeated washings. The fabrics for finer outer clothing, like silk and fine wool, could not withstand the abuse of frequent laundering, so underclothing was washed more often.
Given that bathing was less frequent for people, as well, clean linen would have been a vital part of hygiene. Clean linen would have reduced body odor as well as reduced chafing and other skin complaints caused by sweat and dirt kept near the body too long.
From a language point of view, shift is the proper eighteenth-century term for English speakers. Chemise is the French word for shift or shirt, and was adopted around the turn of the nineteenth century as a more polite way to say shift; at this point, shift became a baser term and chemise the more proper word. Funny how we say something in French and it suddenly seems ever so much nicer...
Now that you’ve heard all about shifts, I bet you want one…and because cutting and sewing these garments is best done in an assembly line manner, adding one for a friend is no trouble at all.
So, it's Giveaway Time! Check the next post for the details...