Best-dressed bump

Bemoaning the lack of maternity clothing options?  We've come a long way, baby! It's only recently that specialist pregnancy clothing has really started to gain in popularity.  Sarah Tennant looks at the history of maternity clothing.


The improved state of maternity wear is a truism these days. Journalistic opinion seems to hold that maternity clothes are no longer the dowdy, tent-like affairs they were, that scores of avid designers are creating cutting-edge glamorous garments, and that the modern pregnant woman can saunter fully-coutured into a ballroom, boardroom, or beach without a care in the world. Usually such optimistic gushing is accompanied by a photo of a glowing celebrity doing just that - because if a pregnant Christan Siriano-clad Heidi Klum on the catwalk can look chic, well, anybody can. Or not.


Now, I admit I'm not exactly a fashionista, but I didn't see clothes racks bulging with flattering, trendy, reasonably priced maternity gear when I was pregnant. I got by - barely - with a few cute babydoll dresses from Australia worn as tops, a pair of too-large jeans, and a Bella band that gave up the ghost after being worn almost daily for nine months. I feebly hunted around online for more exotic wares, but gave up with glazed eyes after viewing the four hundredth identical V-necked ruched "basic black" maternity dress. "You can wear it after pregnancy!" the captions enthused... Not an appealing thought, given that I'd been stuck in a rotating wardrobe of three outfts for the past two months.
     It would be vaguely empowering to think that the problem of maternity clothing has plagued women from time immemorial, a sort of universal sisterhood of, "Does this make me look pregnant or just fat?" and "How can I politely decline my mother-in-law's maternity hand-me-downs?". The thing is… It hasn't. Throughout most of history, what to wear while gestating was simply a non-issue. Women wore what they always wore - clothing expansive and expensive enough that it made do for years, come rain, snow, or reproduction. Ancient through to medieval clothing tended to fall straight from the shoulder in generous folds, ignoring the contours of the body. Indian saris (which wrapped around the waist), Grecian stolas, and Anglo-Saxon shifts and overdresses were all ample enough to cover the bumpiest bump. (I happen to own an Anglo-Saxon-style costume, and can attest that you could fit quintuplets under that thing without anyone being a hint the wiser.)
     During the Renaissance, tailored clothing came into vogue. Maternity clothes were still simple - women let out the seams of their dresses as they expanded, and sewed them back up afterwards. Later, during the Baroque period, women wore aprons and shirts that tied corset-wise at the back to fill the gap left by jackets and gown that no longer closed. The Regency era was also maternity-friendly, being the hey-day of Empire waists. Young women sewed their gowns with plenty of gathers at the front, and quite possibly wore the same white muslin gown for the wedding, pregnancy, and postpartum.
     The Victorian era, despite being headed by a mother of nine, was notably unimpressed with pregnancy; unfortunately, fashions were reaching unprecented levels of tailoring at the same time that pregnant mothers were expected to keep out of the public eye. As a result, a Victorian woman's most important piece of maternity wear was the corset. By tight-lacing, women could hide their condition even up to the fifth month. Raising the top hoop of a hoopskirt to conceal the baby bump was another favourite trick; but eventually biology would triumph over ingenuity, and women would retire to their homes to lie festooned in ruffles.
     While the wasp waist eventually went out of style - health concerns for pregnant women being one factor in its demise - Western fashion has never again been loose-fitting enough to get a woman safely through three trimesters. Fortunately, industrialisation and disposable income have allowed women to buy specialised outfits for pregnancy. The twentieth century saw pregnancy smocks, muumuus, pregnancy overalls, and even maternity underwear - the nursing bra was introduced in 1927.
     Yet maternity clothes were something of a byword in  the fashion industry until quite recently. Of all people, we have the paparazzi to thank for the recent upswing in maternity designs. Once candid shots of pregnant Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet appeared in the tabloids, designers realised they had been ignoring a significant market. Several leading brands started adding maternity ranges to their lines, while other designers emerged to specialise in maternity wear. Websites dedicated to tracking maternity fads and fashions sprang up, dissecting the outfit of any bump-having celebrity and advising readers how to copy their style.
     Today, elegant, trendy, even glamorous maternity clothes are available... for a price. Overseas brands like A Pea in the Pod, Liz Lange, and Séraphine offer pieces that follow the latest styles, cut - or in some cases engineered - for pregnancy. Unfortunately, the cost of these items, given that nine months generally renders them defunct, can be prohibitive. I drooled over a Grace Kelly-inspired maternity coat by Isabella Oliver, retailing for AU$595... slightly more than I hope to spend on my child's tertiary education.
     For mums accustomed to shelling out $300 on a business suit, some of the designer pieces are good value; for the rest of us, they make wearing our husbands' shirts suddenly seem a more appealing option.
     Closer to home, brands such as EGG Maternity, Womama, HOTmilk, Mobea, and Mama2B have broadened the horizons of New Zealand maternity wear. Joanna Ward, manager of EGG Maternity in Hamilton, was in step with overseas fashion when she described today's pregnancy styles as form-fitting, stretchy, and bump-revealing. (Apparently, trying to conceal your bump is so last trimester.) The EGG Maternity Winter 2010 lookbook reveals a decent variety of styles and an impressive range of stretching, tying,  and folding mechanisms designed to keep jeans up, tummies covered and all well with the world.
So far, so good...


During the eras when specialised pregnancy wear didn't exist, the idea of buying clothes simply for labour  would have been laughable. Women wore nightgowns - in one rare sentimental moment, Queen Victoria lamented that her pregnant daughter was too far from home to wear the nightgown Victoria herself had worn for the births of all nine children. Once medicalised childbirth became the norm, nightgowns were replaced by easily washable, if not stylish, hospital gowns. Of course, most mothers I know ended up flinging off their birthwear in order to labour stark naked, a practice that women throughout history have presumably adopted as well.
     Today, proving that no niche is too small, products have cropped up catering to women who are too modest to labour naked or simply too fashion-conscious to give birth in a hospital gown (first impressions count, after all!). The famous Binsi Skirt is a drawstring skirt designed to fit under the belly for ease of foetal monitoring. Knee-length, it allows the labouring mother to feel modest in a variety of birthing positions, and it is as practical for internal exams and birthing as a hospital gown. Binsi birth wear also includes a birthing top (which snaps down the sides for easy removal), several alternative skirt designs, and a stretchy bathrobe that "resists stains and odors". Yummy. Womama's organic cotton Birthing Wrap fulfills the same purpose, and comes in black and raspberry - because every woman deserves a little black (or red) dress to give birth in.
      In defense of the generous price tags, the products can - in theory, at least  - be worn throughout pregnancy as well as during labour. Not so for the other article de jour of labour wear, the designer hospital gown. Online marketplace Etsy features dozens  - paisley, retro, foral, zebra-striped, you name it. Most look more or less like the hospital versions, although some tie under the bust with ribbons. One enterprising designer even matches hers to fabric headbands and burp cloths - the ultimate in contraction chic.


Thanks largely to the Virgin Mary, we have a pretty good visual record of nursingwear throughout history. Full-term nursing was so common historically that one rule of  thumb for costume reenactment is, "If it isn't breastfeeding-friendly, it's probably not period." It helped that exposing a breast wasn't seen as shocking: the lactivist in me loves the medieval paintings of women with covered heads and exposed breasts, happily nursing their babies in front of Jesus, no less. Historical breastfeeding garb included dresses with double slits, pinned closed with a brooch; underbust chemises worn under a top laced down the front;  or simplest of all, low necklines that  could be pulled down to expose a breast. One Regency dress even included surprisingly modern double-layered flaps. 
    Perhaps because most regular tops will work for breastfeeding in a pinch, modern maternity designers have been rather slow off the mark in creating stylish nursing tops. But pulling regular tops up and down is often more tummy-baring than postpartum vanity permits. After viewing the pitiful display of nursing tops online, I resorted to button-down shirts layered with nursing tanks. That was 20 months ago, and my nursing tanks are now faded, stretched and, in one case, snipped with scissors by a toddler. (And they say breastfeeding makes them smarter!) Again I went online... Again I was confronted with hideous fitted tees with a double layer over the bust. I decided to learn to sew.


So is the situation better or worse these days? At non-celebrity, middle-class level, I'm convinced maternity fashion still has a long way to go. Yes, specialised maternity stores sell clothes that follow current trends more closely than ever, but regular clothing stores conspicuously lack options for pregnant and nursing women. Despite the fact that the average New Zealand woman gives birth twice, pregnancy and birth are not yet normalised to the point at which mainstream designers routinely release maternity cuts of their clothes.
     The result is dedicated maternity stores, who naturally want to attract as much of the market as possible, and tend to keep the majority of their clothes safely middle-of-the-road. For those of us outside mainstream fashion, the options slim down to zero. If goth clothing stores won't sell maternity and maternity stores won't sell goth, what's a pregnant child of melancholy to do?
     Googling "goth maternity clothes" reveals a disappointing array of bland pregnancy T-shirts decorated with skulls, and a lot of advice from been-there-done-that goth mamas to buy a basic black maternity dress and accessorise the heck out of it. The hippie/bohemian crowd can mostly get away with it, maxi dresses and peasant skirts lending themselves to pregnancy; but the rest of us subcultures are sadly out of luck. Say it with me, fashion industry: Goths get pregnant too.
     In fact, perhaps we need to issue a manifesto (see below). Okay, maybe a manifesto shouldn't say "please" so much. I can't help it; I'm a mother. But  I think it gets the point across.
     In the meantime, if anyone can find me a swirly ankle-length steampunk maternity coat in dark chocolate brown, I might just try for baby number two.


Dear mainstream fashion industry,
      We will pass over the horrors you have perpetrated on our sex in general for the time being. Right now we're concerned with your attitude to those of us gestating and/or lactating; the incubators of the next generation of fashion-conscious. We are numerous, we have purchasing power, and we are extremely hormonal - so listen up.
     Please make us clothes. Yes, you. Really. Don't think of us as a niche market left for someone else; just look at the top/skirt,pants/dress you designed and think, "How can I make this fit a pregnant woman?" The techniques are out there - you can do it.
     Please think of us as people. Imagine yourself suddenly pregnant. Would you immediately lose all sense of personal style and preference? Neither do we. Please don't assume we all like jersey knits, or ruching, or crossover tops. Please don't assume we're all 35. Please don't think a basic black T-shirt, pants and tunic set is enough to satisfy our self-expression for nine months. Please consider the freaks and geeks among us, the demure and the daring, the plus-sized, the cleavageless and those boycotting Made-in-China sweatshop products. Please remember that pregnant women still attend weddings (sometimes our own), go swimming, hike, dance, and give presentations.
    Please keep in mind that some of us can't stand clothes clinging to our bellies when pregnant, and some of us can't  stand clothes that tie underneath it. Please recall that some of us carry high, some carry low, some have longer-than-usual arms and legs, and some of us have no hips at all.
     And next time you feel inclined to brag about how awesome the your new collection is, please visit a pregnancy forum for a few hours and listen to us lament. It'll give you a whole new perspective.
Mothers of 2010  



Sarah Tennant describes her personal fashion yen as "steampunk" (retro-futuristic neo-Victorianism, in case you were wondering). She lives in Hamilton with her husband Dominic and daughter Rowan.


As seen in OHbaby! magazine Issue 9: 2010

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