“Poor woman! how can she honestly be breeding again?”
– Jane Austen, October 1 1808
Historical maternity fashions – did they exist at all? Did women just make do and rearrange their everyday clothes? Did they simply stay in bed? Here are some answers.
Up to the Middle ages dresses did not follow the female figure, and thus your shape under the clothes would not matter anyway, so there was no need for specialised maternity wear. When the dresses began to be shaped by seams at the sides and elsewhere, women obviously simply opened these seams again when they were pregnant to make their clothes “fit”. You can see this on many paintings of the pregnant Mother Mary.
It is not clear how long exactly this seam-opening was carried on, but during the Baroque period women began to wear loose dresses when pregnant, such as the so called “Adrienne”, a gown-like garment with no waist and lots of voluminous folds to cover the growing body. Although I did not find a portrait or other picture that shows a specifically pregnant woman wearing such a garment, there are lots of sources showing these robes, and they are also mentioned and expressly connected to pregnancy in letters.
Also recorded is the use of garments much like men’s waist coats, which allowed the wearer to regulate the width with a laced vent in the back. These were worn under bed gowns. Aprons are also mentioned in connection with pregnancy (“…must be with child, is wearing her aprons again!”), probably because they were used to cover the space left open by the no longer fitting front closing jackets.
Dating from the Georgian and Regency period you can find a lot of dresses or combinations that were simply so adaptable that they would “grow” with you, and were also quite practical for nursing, which, inspired by reformers like Rousseau, became increasingly en vogue among the upper classes again during the Regency period. These dresses are not labelled as “maternity dress”, but they would fit during every stage of the pregnancy, and, like the Adrienne, also when you were not pregnant, which must have made them extremely economical.
True maternity wear in the modern sense of the word, fitting quite possibly only during a certain stage of the pregnancy, appeared for the first time around the middle of the 19th century, when prudery dictated that such unmentionable circumstances as pregnancy had better stay hidden.
We also have to keep in mind that most of these observations are true only for the well-to-do. Poor women’s dress throughout the times was almost always rather baggy, so that with little ado it would still fit during pregnancies.
Result: Unlike today there was no special maternity wear, fitting only during one stage of the pregnancy, but instead we find a type of every-day clothing that would simply fit and grow with you, and which was possibly favored by young married women, who were likely to get pregnant. Since most people did not posses and could not afford the number of clothes we own today, this was simple necessity
And yes, if at all possible, women stayed in bed for the last few weeks before and at least four weeks after giving birth. To do otherwise was considered improper and dangerous for the health and well-being of mother and child. And since most women were closely connected to their various relations who could step in if needed, this practice was possible even in less wealthy families. Only among the well and truly poor exceptions will have occurred out of bitter need.
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Ann-Dorothee Schlueter, Proprietress of Arts Et Metiers, in Germany is a textile historian and historical seamstress. She is registered with the Handwerkskammer, Berlin. Visit her website to see samples of her work and purchase items.