There they are, in all their spaghetti-strap summer dress glory, taunting you with the delicious thought of wandering around in the summer in practically nothing... siren temptresses. Do not heed their call, for that way madness lies...
Just about every summer, somebody on one of the 14-15th century lists I'm on brings up these women, noting their dress and stating a desire to go about dressed just like them, or else wishing to apply this odd mode of dress as a 'cooler' undergarment for the general mode of dress in the time period. There are even several historical recreation costumers and pattern makers marketing them with write ups containing words like 'substantive evidence' and 'repeated examples'.
I have on a number of occasions laid out the argument I have against this particular garment being anything other than a statistical blip in the world of 14c. Fashion, at best an occupational garment, and at worst an artistic fallacy, and in the interests of laying out the arguments before a larger audience, and fixing them in a more organized and generally understandable format, you see before you the following.
Why a Chemise?
Let’s look for just a moment at why one wears a chemise. Throughout history people have worn an undergarment of some sort of relatively inexpensive and easily laundered fabric to protect the more expensive outer layers from the dirt the body generates. These days it's generally cotton, currently the most common and inexpensive fabric available. In period it was very nearly always linen, which was almost invariably produced locally, and therefore, again, inexpensive and readily available.
In addition to the use of more expensive fabrics, one must also consider the factor of more time consuming workmanship. The outer layer is generally a more tailored piece, at least as far as the fashions of the time under consideration are concerned, fitted to the body, constructed with eyelets and buttonholes, and sometimes embellished with decorative embroidery, and thus a more costly garment in terms of its manufacture as well as its materials.
This being the case, we have to ask why one would choose to have a sleeveless chemise in the first place? Given the general mores of the time we're looking at, there would have had to have been at least one layer above this garment, in order to be considered appropriately dressed for appearance in public. This sleeveless garment, if worn as a chemise, would leave any garment worn over it exposed to all the damage that the not inconsiderable body sweat from the armpits would produce, thus shortening useful life span of the more expensive over garment. Given this I find it difficult to believe that this was ever a commonly used undergarment.
So what's this 'sleeveless chemise' thing anyway?
Lets start with the basic question of where we get the idea for this garment. There are two common sources for the sleeveless chemise, one a manuscript, and one a later book on costume. Both are discussed in detail below, as well as some ancillary sources, not generally known.
The Wenceslaus Bible
Also sometimes called the Prague Bible, this was produced in the late 1300's to early 1400's for King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia. There are in this manuscript a number of depictions of women in this garment with either thin shoulder straps or no shoulder straps at all, and no sleeves. They also appear in the illuminations to be tightly fitted garments, though this is I believe more an attempt by the illuminators to show the clinging effect of wet linen, rather than actual fitting of the garment. In every one of them these women are depicted with wooden buckets, and a sheaf of branches (sometimes affectionately referred to as a giant artichoke). These are sometimes rather phallicly placed, and this, along with the sometimes very revealing nature of the garments, gives rise to a theory that 'bathhouse' may very well be a synonym, in that time and place, for the modern term 'massage parlor', and calls rather seriously into question the virtue of the women involved in the matter (see in particular figure 4, below). It also gives rise to the 'Bohemian Bath Babe' label that is commonly applied to this garment.
|Fig. 1||Fig. 2||Fig. 3|
|Fig. 4||Fig. 5||Fig. 6|
The Wenceslaus Connection
I, as a pet theory, have always felt that these women are there because somebody needed Wenceslaus to be seen to be reading his bible, and putting dirty girls in the margin was the only way to make that happen with any regularity. This is actually unlikely, but it amuses me. Beside that pet theory, I couldn't really say why the marginalia of the book is chocked with scantily clad bathouse attendants. It's certainly not a particularly religious theme, in fact quite the opposite, unless one is considering the cleanliness being next to godliness angle, and even that seems a bit of a stretch. I've seen the theory that they are representatives of the Bohemian Bathouse Keepers Guild, though why on earth such a guild would be depicted in the margins of the bible, as well as sometimes more prominently in the illuminations is never explained.
That being the case, however, it should be noted that two other manuscripts known to have been made for Wenceslaus also contain images of bathouse keepers. The illuminations shown below (Figs 7-8)are from a copy of an astronomical text, a commentary on Ptolemy (ONB 2271, fol. 1r), made between 1395 and 1405, and from (fig 9) a gloss on the Epistles of Saint Paul (ONB 2789, fol. 1r), made between 1390 and 1400. Both manuscripts contain marginal images of bathouse keepers, and one may even contain an image of Wenceslaus himself, entangled in the large 'W' (see fig. 8). Again, the presence of these women in the margins is odd, given the subject matter of the manuscripts in question.
|Fig. 7||Fig. 8||Fig. 9|
Carl Köhler's History of Costume
Ok, lets look at this as evidentiary material. This is a photograph (see Fig. 10, below) that appears in the abovesaid 'History of Costume' of Karl Kolher, published in 1929. We have only Kolher's word for this piece's date and purpose, and no further information about it. The piece itself hasn't been seen in years, perhaps since it was photographed in the first place. There are no notes on where or when it was found, nor any on it's construction. Indeed it has no supporting documentation at all, as far as I've ever been able to discover, and has never been carbon dated, having been lost to history long before that technology was developed.
Thus we have only this one rather ancient photograph to go on, and Kohler's unsupported word that it it what it is. I really cannot take this as any firm evidence of the period or use of the piece. Given that Kolher was writing in the very early stages of costume research, and had developed for himself some rather interesting (though currently discredited) theories, for all we really know it could be a 17c milkmaids smock.
Ok, so what's more commonly seen?
As we have seen from the illumination examples provided previously the bathouse keeper's garment is fitted and sleeveless. From all I have seen in many years of looking at manuscript images, and more specifically in recently looking specifically for images of women's chemises, the vast majority of all the ones seen are full sleeved and full bodied. I've included a selection of images below, from a variety of sources from the period in question, as examples. This is meant to be a representative sampling, not an exhaustive gallery.
Given the general lack of illuminations depicting women in their underwear, as well as the total lack of any extant garments, it's rather hard to draw truly firm conclusions in the matter (it's slightly easier for men, as there are many more examples...) but even given that, I would say that nearly all the illuminations there are of women in chemises (barring the bath house women in question) indicate the general use of a full sleeved chemise, and not the use of a sleeveless one. The logical use of an undergarment as protection for the overgarment also would indicate for a full sleeved chemise.
That, taken with the limited source nature of the evidence, leads me to believe that the garment, if it is indeed anything other than an artists conception of something that never really existed, is an occupational garment, worn by bath house women, and specifically eastern European bath house women, while about their trade, and is thus not an appropriate or practical undergarment for period use. If you want to set yourself up as a Bohemian bath house keeper, go to town, make a dozen of them. Just don't forget your bucket and giant artichoke.
Figs 1-6: Wenceslaus Bible
Figs 7-8: Commentary on Ptolemy (ÖNB 2271)
Fig 9: Epistles of Paul (ÖNB 2789)
Fig 10: Karl Kohler: History of Costume
Fig 11: Belles Heurs (The Cloisters Collection 54.1.1)
Fig 12 – 13: Tres Riches Heures (Musee Conde)
Fig 14 – 15: Boccaccio’s Decameron (BnF Arsenal MS 5070)
Fig 16: Susannah led to her execution (The Hague, MMW, 10 B 23, fol. 260v), 1372
Fig 17 – 18: Lancelot du Lac (BNF Fr. 119)
La Bible de Prague – Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, Jean Grosjean, Marcel Thomas; Philippe Lebaud (1989)
History of Costume – Karl Kolher. Translated by Alexander K. Dallas M.A.; David McKay Company (1928)
Final report of Austrian Sciences Fund Stand-alone Projects P16611 (Schools of Eastern Central Europe II (Cent. Europ. Sc. IV) )
'The Bohemian Bathhouse Babes in the Wencelaus Bible'
'Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture: Baths and Bathing'
'Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture: Women's Smocks'
'From the Skin Out'