Welcome back to FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today’s topic is one
that seems to be quite the curiosity to many people, or, more
accurately, to many women. That’s right, I’m finally covering maternity
wear in the age of corsets! It’s no wonder why this topic is so
perplexing to so many people- it is a shockingly un-discussed area of
fashion history. We rarely, if ever, see images of pregnant women
throughout history. What we commonly see, though, is women with
teeny-tiny waists that are caged in and perfectly flattened by stays and
corsets. Clearly, those styles didn’t leave much room for a little
alien growing in a woman’s belly. Yet the fact that we all here today is
proof that the vast majority of women throughout history were pregnant
at some point in their lives. This means that some sort of clothing
accommodating a rapidly growing midsection had to exist. So what did it
Up until the Renaissance, maternity wear was barely, if at all, different from regular dress. This is because in these early days, clothing was not fitted to the body. Fabric was cut in rectangular pieces that were laced together, making it easy to tighten or loosen a dress. During pregnancy, women would simply loosen the lacing, allowing more of her underlayers of clothing to be visible, possibly adding additional layers. Later in a pregnancy, women simply stayed at home, meaning they could just wear loose undergarments and open robes. During the late Middle Ages, it was in fact fashionable for a woman to appear pregnant, whether or not she actually was. They would wear high waisted gowns with extra fabric gathered around her belly, thus making specific maternity wear unnecessary.
By the Renaissance, though, seams and structure became integral parts of fashion. Stays came into fashion (read here) resulting in a restricted bodice. During this era, women would loosen the bottom of their stays as much as possible during the early part of their pregnancy, thus causing the bump to appear rather low. Those who could afford new clothing would wear shortened bodices as their stomachs grew larger. Those who could not had two options. One, they would wear a man’s waistcoat paired with their loose underlayers and skirts. This is because during this era men’s waistcoats had vents in the back, held together by lacing which could be loosened. The other option was to wear a bodice that laced in the front, leaving the lacing around the belly open. This would then be covered up with an apron. Using an apron to cover an open bodice that accommodated a full belly remained the go-to style for the pregnant poor for the next couple of centuries.
The first official pregnancy garment was created in the 17th century. Known as the Adrienne dress, the style had loose folds of fabric where normally a fitted waist would be found. The Adrienne developed throughout the next century, and by the 18th century it often included a bib that could be folded down for breastfeeding. In the early 19th century Neoclassical era, fashion was once again in a style that easily accommodated a pregnant figure. By the 1820s, though, structured undergarments made their way back into style, soon becoming the cinched-waisted corsets we associate with the word today. However, maternity corsets were also created around this time. These garments were created to shape, support, and minimize the appearance of a belly. They were adjustable, and some had flaps for breastfeeding. There were countless styles created, all boasting some new-found advantage.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, maternity wear would either raise or lower waistlines, depending on which was more fashionable at the time, to accommodate the shape. The crinoline era used empire waists, as well as separate blouses and skirts, often covered by a large jacket to hide the bump. At home, wrappers and robes were extremely common. The bustle era, with its drop waists, attempted to hide the shape by smoothing it down into folds of fabric by the hips. When tea gowns- unstructured, flowing dresses- were developed towards the end of the Victorian era, they became the fashionable choice for women at home, particularly towards the end of their term. Yet the birth (get it??) of the ready to wear industry (read here) and the downfall of the corset shortly after caused maternity wear to shift towards the distinctive garments we often think of today. That, however, is a topic for another day.