Chemise: Fashion-Inspired Baby Name

chemise, dress, baby name, 1950s
Chemise dress by Cardin
© 1957 Life

The baby name Chemise first appeared in the U.S. data in 1958:

  • 1960: unlisted
  • 1959: unlisted
  • 1958: 7 baby girls named Chemise [debut]
  • 1957: unlisted
  • 1956: unlisted

At first I didn’t think much of it, as chemise is an old French word (originally for a woman’s undergarment) that happens to have a pleasant sound: sheh-MEEZ or sheh-MEES (similar to Charisse). Seeing it pop up in the ’50s data didn’t really surprise me.

But then I did some research…and discovered a fascinating bit of fashion history.

For most of the ’50s, the dominant silhouette in ladies’ fashion was an hourglass shape that included defined waists and full skirts.

But in 1957 specifically, several high-fashion designers (including Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Laroche) shook things up by presenting dresses that hung loose from the shoulder and were not cinched at the waist.

These shapeless “chemise” dresses — sometimes called “bag” or “sack” dresses — ended up being a hot topic in the American press during the last months of 1957 and throughout 1958. Supporters praised chemises for being modern and simple; detractors called them ungainly and ugly.

Perhaps even more importantly, the controversy inspired the novelty song “No Chemise, Please” [vid] by Gerry Granahan. It was popular over the summer of 1958.

After a while, the debate died down and the silhouette became accepted (and eventually mainstream). But not before it had given the French word chemise lots of extra exposure. And this extra exposure ended up having a (slight) effect on American baby names, resulting in that 1958 debut in the data.

So what do you think of Chemise as a baby name? (How about as a dress style?)

Sources: Balenciaga – FIDM Museum & Galleries, Chemise dress – Objects – RISD Museum, Caftan Liberation: How an Ancient Fashion Set Modern Women Free

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