The modern chemise is often thought of a short lingerie garment. It may be worn as part of a baby doll set, with tap pants or bikini underwear, or it may be a short, sleeveless gown that comes to about mid thigh. The garment may be sold in lingerie sets with a pretty robe and is usually made in silk or satin materials, with lace trim. Many are meant to be deliberately provocative, which is a far cry from the original intent of the item.
In French, the word chemise merely means "shirt." It was probably first worn by men and women in the Middle Ages as a protective layer between clothing and the body. This garment might also be called a shift, a smock, or a variety of other names. A colloquial term in the Southern US in the 19th century was shimmy.
The medieval version generally had long sleeves and was simply a loosely cut garment that was either floor or shirt length. It might also be worn as a simple nightgown, although a plain nightgown was sometimes called a shift. With daily bathing not common in the middle ages, the chemise was one way to keep outer clothes looking and smelling cleaner. It would soak up body oil or dirt, but was lightweight and more easily washed than gowns or men’s outerwear.
While men normally wore the chemise directly under their clothing, women often wore it under their corsets and petticoats as these items became popular wear for the upper classes. When bras and panties became popular, many women started wearing the chemise over their underwear, leading to the modern half and full-slip.
Many men still don a chemise, though they might laugh to be told they’re wearing something so closely associated with lingerie. The t-shirt worn under many dress shirts is essentially a revamped version of this garment. Some younger men don’t see the necessity of wearing an undershirt of any sort, but many men feel they are appropriate when wearing light dress shirts, or for providing an extra layer of warmth.
For women, fully lined garments meant that wearing a chemise or any type of slip is often relatively unnecessary. Women can benefit from wearing at least a sleeveless chemise or slip under garments that are not lined and can be seen through, however. Mostly, the modern garment has been relegated to the status of lingerie, meant to be seen only in private and possibly romantic circumstances.