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Fashions of Motherhood

by Linda Baumgarten

The French encyclopedia by Denis Diderot illustrates a pair of stays for wear during pregnancy; they have additional lacings at the side waist to allow expansion as a woman's body grew. As uncomfortable as stays sound to us, they did provide support for the back and helped maintain some semblance of the fashionable female figure by keeping a flat line at the bodice front, pushing the bosom up into a high, rounded shape. Although some criticized stays prior to the 1790s, the most vocal outbursts against them occurred after stays had been abandoned for fashionable reasons at the end of the eighteenth century. In an 1807 edition of Advice to Mothers, Dr. Buchan praised the new uncorseted fashions and described the former practice of wearing stays during pregnancy.

Among many improvements in the modern fashions of female dress, equally favourable to health, to graceful ease and elegance, the discontinuance of stays is entitled to peculiar approbation. It is, indeed, impossible to think of the old straight waistcoat of whalebone, and of tightlacing, without astonishment and some degree of horror . . . I need not point out the aggrevated mischief of such a pressure on the breasts and womb in a state of pregnancy. Unfortunately, fashion later in the nineteenth century returned to corseting and constricted the waistline as much as or more than it had in the previous century.

Few maternity gowns survive in museum collections. Colonial Williamsburg has only one. Women altered their usual clothing in an era when most could not afford large wardrobes or clothing designed specifically for pregnancy. Women's styles were surprisingly adaptable to changes in size. Many gowns fastened at the front with hidden lacings that could be let out to accommodate the new figure. If the triangular stomacher no longer fit the front of the enlarged gown, the front could be filled in with a large neck handkerchief worn much like a shawl. Petticoats usually fastened at either side with ties, and thus could continue to be worn during pregnancy by loosening the ties. Women merely tied their petticoats up over their abdomens, hiking up the hems at the front as a result. Print sources suggest that no attempt was made to adjust hemlines to make the skirts hang evenly in front.

Women's thigh-length Short Gown from the late 18th century could have served as a loose-fitting maternity garment.

Women's thigh-length Short Gown from the late 18th century could have served as a loose-fitting maternity garment. 1985-242.

Another garment easily adapted to pregnancy was a loose, unfitted gown with a shortened skirt that was worn with a petticoat as a two-piece outfit. Variously called a "bedgown" or "short gown," this style was not limited to maternity wear, but was the everyday dress of many working women as a comfortable alternative to fashionable but tight gowns. Because they were cut full and loose, pregnant women could wear bedgowns without altering them.

The high-waisted, uncorseted styles of the turn of the century were even more convenient. They were usually fitted to the upper body with drawstrings that could be loosened as necessary. The absence of a natural waistline made camouflage and fit easier than it had been in the past.