One subject we need to address before proceeding to the chemise is that of the difference between knickers and drawers. There isn’t one. Up until the 20th Century, drawers were worn by Americans and the British. However, after the 1880s, Brits started referring to women’s drawers worn during sports as “knickers,” short for “knickerbockers.” Originally men’s knee-length britches—named after the Knickerbockers, a Dutch business family prominent during the 17th Century—women adopted the undergarment. Knickers is now the term for women’s panties in the UK.
To be on the safe side historically when crafting an American historical novel, I would refer to the undergarment as drawers, especially when writing about pioneers and/or the Old West. Of course, a character with affectations may refer to them as “knickers.”
Where do bloomers come in? Drawers and knickers are not bloomers. Never have been. Bloomers are harem pants gathered around the ankle and worn under a short dress while cycling or participating in other sports. Named after newspaperwoman Amelia Bloomer, who advocated sensibility in dress, bloomers were created by Elizabeth Smith Miller. First introduced around 1851, Amelia wore the style for a short time, which went out of favor around 1854, except for a handful of stalwart individuals. It did make a reappearance in the mid-1880s after a bicycle that women could ride comfortably was introduced. By 1896, the garment had regained favor and, along with knickerbockers and culottes, were popular with the sport set.
Shifts, or smocks as they are sometime called, dated from Medieval times and maintained popularity as a woman’s single undergarment for centuries. Wide, straight, with long sleeves and ankle length, the shift was the first layer of many. It also functioned as a nightgown and for many centuries, a woman would sleep in her shift, then get up and put on her outer clothing after washing face and hands in a basin. Usually made of muslin or linen, the shift was sometimes worn as an outer garment by the poor. Later known as the chemise, the garment was still referred to as a shift in other countries.
By today’s standards, shifts and chemises were enormous, sporting large necklines pulled in by strings and wide sleeves pulled in at the elbow and large underarm gussets for mobility, you’d think women of the early 19th Century were giantesses. Better quality chemises were constructed of fine, softer linen, similar to today’s handkerchief linen and batiste. The masses made theirs from the old standby, muslin.
Unless you were upper crust and had servants to make your garments, you made your own, which could take as long as a month depending on how elaborate the garment would be and how skilled you were in the needle arts. The 1860’s saw an improvement in the item’s appearance. Sleeves became shorter, necklines not quite as voluminous, although they were still adjusted with ties. Broderie anglaise was used as edging as a forerunner of the addition of lace insertions and ribbons in the latter part of the century. Sometimes sleeves were eliminated altogether.
Chemises became shorter in length—sometimes, above the knee. They were still full. By the 1870s, bulk was reduced at the waist via tapering at the seams, to make the fit smoother. They were not closely fitted to the form, however. Silk was introduced in the 1880’s. Although wool was worn for warmth, the most popular fabrics were lawn, silk, and muslin, embroidered and trimmed with lace. We still wear chemises, however today’s would probably cause a proper Victorian woman of the early 20th Century to get her knickers in a twist.