Often when bloggers discuss historical costuming, especially 1600-1900, they bring up small clothes or “the state of undress” in contrast to modern sensibilities. They point out the obvious like it is profound, that a chemise was basically naked to them whereas it certainly looks like being fully clothed to our eyes. And, of course, since modern clothes are often worn against skin except for our brief underwear, having an underlayer as voluminous as a shift seems excessive.
I am not sure, though, that those comparisons are fair.
See, I was thinking today in the restroom at work about my own underlayer for the day (or really any day in winter), which consisted of leggings and a long-sleeved t-shirt beneath my skirt and sweater. I could be stripped of my top layer and still be fully covered…but I would feel absolutely naked if asked to walk through the office that way. Even aside from casual v. business casual concerns, I would feel undressed because those are not clothes anyone is meant to see. They are not flattering, they are not cut to hide my figure flaws, and they are not decorative. Their sole purpose is practicality: warmth and the desire to avoid itchy sweater against bare skin.
So next time you read someone trying to contextualize historical undergarments and calling out how odd they seem to modern eyes, picture not your bra and panties but the slip you put under formal gowns or the thermal underwear you put betwen your skin and every other fiber during winter. Remember the difference between being naked and being nude. One can feel as good as naked even in fabric that covers neck to toe. Our small clothes really aren’t so different, after all.