The shift (or smock, or chemise) was a basic linen undergarment worn by women throughout the early modern period. Some examples of seventeenth-century shifts survive in museums and collections, and you can find examples and details about a few of them in books like Patterns of Fashion 4 and Seventeenth-century Dress Patterns.

However, so far there is very little surviving physical evidence known to scholarship (i.e., surviving garments we know about – there might be more somewhere for researchers to discover one day!) about the style and construction of shifts during the period of the Restoration in England, i.e. the period dating from the return to the throne of Charles II to the later part of the century. After 1700, more evidence survives, and the construction and style of shifts from the 1700s (the eighteenth century) is much more well understood.

In order to reconstruct an idea of how a shift from the Restoration period would have been constructed, and the details of its design, modern day scholars and costume makers are forced to use other forms of research. To build up a picture, we can analysis large numbers of visual sources like portraits and drawings, which show parts of shifts that can be seen sticking out from underneath sleeves and necklines etc, or portraits of women in erotic styled ‘dishabille’ dress: the deliberately dishevelled ‘undress’ style of popular portraits like those of the King’s mistresses. These portraits often seem to show women wearing nothing but their shift, plus maybe a few interestingly draped fabrics, but we cannot be certain that the linen garments they are wearing were the same shift that would have been worn as a standard undergarment at the time. This is because paintings like these often depicted fancy dress, costumes and imaginary draperies that created a fantasy look, which was fashionable in portraiture of the time. So, it could have been real underwear, but equally, it could have been garments worn specially for the portrait, to look ‘dishevelled’ and alluring. (My personal opinion is that in most cases, these really are ordinary shifts, but without certainty it is important to be careful and remain objective).

The other method by which researchers and makers can build a picture of the Restoration shift is to use practical reconstruction and sewing experimentation, to literally attempt to recreate shifts that can be worn by modern wearers, and test out theories about their design and construction that way. To do this, we can use the ideas gathered from examining large numbers of the kinds of visual sources listed above, along with contextual written records (although, because the period we are looking at is pre-industrial, such written records are fairly sparse and not always that helpful) and other sources of clues like literature (novels, poems, plays etc) to design prototypes for possible shift patterns. We can then make them up in period accurate fabrics (as far as possible), and try wearing them under reconstructions of the kind of outer garments that we definitely DO know people were wearing at the time, and observe the results to see if they match our expectations.

Relevant images and written sources that give us clues about shifts during this period can be found in a very wide ranging variety of locations. I have brought some of them together below, in hopes of working towards building an accurate idea of the way some fashionable shift designs from the Restoration period may have been constructed.

Carlo Ceresa (Italian, 1609–1679), Portrait of a lady, c. 1650-60,
private collection. Sold at auction by Dorotheum, Vienna, December 2015.
In this Italian portrait by Carlo Ceresa, we can see what looks like it could be the neckline or collar of the sitter’s shift. It appears to be cut quite wide, but not down to the level of her outer garment neckline. It also appears to have a slit opening cut down through the centre front, which disappears below her outer garment, and is closed at the neck with a fastening or closure of some kind: possibly a small string or tape tie. We can also see the bottoms of her sleeves which are clearly very wide, decorative, and gathered at the elbow with what look like black ribbons or tapes, and the cuffs or sleeve openings are adorned with a frill and some lace trim. Although this is an Italian portrait, the outer clothing worn by the sitter is very similar to the styles worn in England at the time.
Frans van Mieris, Brothel Scene, oil on panel, 1658, The Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands. here we see a woman dressed in different, less expensive clothing. She also wears her neckline more open to reveal her décolletage. The white edge of her shift can be seen at the neckline.
Eglon van der Neer, Interior with a Woman Washing her Hands, oil on panel,1675, The Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands. Here we see a woman washing her hands in the foreground. The frilly edge of her shift is just visible at her neckline. Behind her, another woman stands with one shoe off, with the rolled back sleeves of her shift and the top of the neckline on show.
Caspar Netscher, A Woman Feeding a Parrot, with a Page, oil on panel,1666,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
In this Dutch painting we see a woman whose shift sleeves can clearly be seen, showing the elaborate frills at her elbows, and the many gathers of the wide shift sleeves are visible through the openings of the sleeve of her outer garment. We can also observe that the collar of her shift has been decorated with a ruffle. (Once again, this ensemble is very similar to the kind that would have been worn by English women during this period).

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