When it comes to retro maternity style, I may not be an expert, but I think sheer experience has to count for something! I’ve lived through two decades of maternity wear, beginning with my first pregnancy in 1996, when I was just starting out as a seamstress-for-hire and making lots of Regency gowns. That era is so comfortable and easy on the pregnant silhouette that I wore a lot of empire-waist gowns for about 13 years’ worth of pregnancies! The style doesn’t immediately leap out as a costume, so I happily traipsed through grocery stores and the neighborhood, enjoying the comfortable fit and feminine look.
A Brief Look at Regency Era Maternity
Pregnancy was “user-friendly” during the Empire/Regency era, because society didn’t yet frown on a public “bump,” and fashion favored the high waist that made it easy to continue wearing the same dresses while pregnant that fit before the wearer was expecting. High-waisted Spencer jackets also didn’t restrict the belly in any way, and longer coats could be worn cinched below the bust or simply hanging free, as you’ll see next. In this Russian portrait by Argunov of the Comtesse Cheremetiev (1803), the lady wears a pelisse-style gown with no defined waist,
French artist Jean-August Ingres created this delicate pencil and watercolor portrait of his pregnant wife, Madeleine, in 1814:
The fantastic Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion exhibition featured maternity outfits from this era, as you can see in the photo below:
My Own Regency Maternity Style
I was definitely in good company when I wore so many Regency gowns during my late 20s to mid-30s. I still love them, though a lot of the floral prints and trims are far too youthful for my 44-year-old self these days. 😉 But I really enjoyed wearing them and still look back fondly at the outfits I’ve worn through the years.
I made the hip-length short gown below from my Elegant Lady’s Closet pattern in 2009 while pregnant with my third daughter and wore it on my first England Tour. Below you see me at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, enjoying the garden. I paired the top with a favorite white knit skirt and added net lace at the elbows to make it extra special. I still have this one and love it.
Below is another Regency gown (also made from the drawstring option in my Elegant Lady’s Closet) that I wore on the same tour. My dear friend, Lindsay, took this photo of me in the painted hall at Greenwich Royal Naval College:
This time period was also a great one for breastfeeding mothers, as drop-front bodices allowed easy access (and no one was in the least embarrassed by breastfeeding–that would come in Queen Victoria’s time, unfortunately).
I made a couple of these for myself and nursed two daughters and a set of twins easily.
Of course, not everything I wore came out of a historical fashion plate, but a lot still had historical roots, because you just can’t beat a classic silhouette:
Finding Classic Maternity Styles in Other Decades
I won’t attempt to give you an exhaustive look at the history of maternity fashion. Others have already done that very well (I recommend Vintage Dancer’s post for a good overview with lots of images). But it is fun to take a stroll down Memory Lane and see how my own approach to maternity wear has changed through the years. I’ve always loved retro style, because, honestly, I found it extremely difficult in the late 1990s and early 2000s to find maternity clothing that wasn’t actually embarrassing! At first, I could find only tent-style dresses with no shape and style. Later, maternity vogue morphed to favor skin-tight dresses that really looked like sausage casings to my eyes! No, thanks.
So I’ve stuck to making my own things for years with a few rare exceptions when I’ve found pretty, comfortable styles in the shops (which has mainly happened in the last five years thanks to the “retro” craze that has brought beautiful, feminine dresses back into the spotlight). When I discovered I was expecting in fall 2016, I dug through my old maternity clothes and found a lot of tired tops and dresses that had seen better days and a lot of wear and tear, so I decided to check through my pattern stash to see if I could find anything fun with a vintage flare.
What I have from the 1930s and 1940s still demonstrates that, after 70 years of Victorians and Edwardians hiding pregnancy, society still wasn’t ready to embrace the expectant figure quite as publicly as our Regency (and earlier) forebears did. Even catalog companies like Lane Bryant, which included entire sections devoted to maternity wear, offered fashions designed to hide a bump and keep women looking as un-pregnant as possible. Most patterns from the 1930s and ’40s include a loose jacket to cover up the belly once the waistline expanded past what was considered decent:
Shaking Things Up in the 1950s
And then it happened. To be more specific, Lucille Ball happened:
When the producers of “I Love Lucy” allowed their star to appear pregnant on screen in 1952 and wrote it into the script, it was still too controversial to use the word “pregnant.” But Lucille Ball very much wanted to include her pregnancy in the show, and, because she was such a big star, her embrace of comfortable maternity fashion had a huge impact on the clothes women felt comfortable wearing in public. Now instead of trying to adapt regular styles for maternity with adjustable wrap skirts and expandable waistlines, clothing manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon of exclusive maternity clothes. Three sisters had tried with limited success to launch a whole line of maternity clothes a decade earlier, but the trend absolutely skyrocketed in the 1950s, thanks in large part to Lucy making pregnancy public and wearing cute clothes that clearly advertised her condition.
Now, 1950s maternity clothes still weren’t as bump-revealing as a lot of things pregnant women wear today, but they were definitely designed with actual baby bumps in mind and put the comfort of the expectant mother at the top of the list. One sore point for years with adjustable maternity clothes was the front hemline of skirts and dresses. Because skirts weren’t made extra long (only wider to allow the waistline to expand), the front would slowly hike up as the belly expanded. Without our modern Lycra belly panels to provide stretch across the tummy, ladies were left with odd-looking uneven hems as their pregnancies progressed. An “ah-ha!” moment came when Elsie Frankfurt cut out a belly opening in one of her older sister’s maternity skirts to allow her to keep the pencil skirt fitting correctly–while the opening would hide beneath a loose jacket or smock top.
Making My Own 1950s Maternity Ensemble
When I visited a friend in the UK in 2014, she handed me a stack of vintage patterns someone had given her and asked me to pick whatever I wanted. I immediately grabbed a 1950s maternity pattern with a pencil skirt, as I had never seen one up close before. The open panel intrigued me, and I wondered if it could really be practical or comfortable.
This mail order pattern includes pre-cut pieces without any markings other than dots to show the straight grain or fold, and the instructions have no illustrations. I read through them a few times, puzzled by a couple of steps, but I figured they would make sense once I started sewing. Raiding my stash, I found a beautiful hot pink paisley polished cotton for the smock and (unconventionally for the 1950s!) a Lycra-cotton jersey knit for the skirt.
I opted to omit the suspender straps for the skirt, as I felt sure the front tie would easily hold things in place over my protruding tummy. The skirt went together quite quickly, as it only has two main pieces, plus the facing for the belly opening. Below is a picture of that curved facing pinned to the opening:
And here’s the facing sewn in place, turned and pressed (sorry the shots are so dark!):
Once I’d sewed the waistline facing in place and run a ribbon through it to tie, it was time for a try-on. I have a belly band I wear during late pregnancy, so that’s the white material you see over my tummy in these pictures:
As you can see, the panel surrounds the belly and allows the skirt front to hang perfectly. Without Spandex, our foremothers nevertheless figured out an ingenious way to accommodate the baby bump!
Now that I’d finished the skirt, I jumped straight into cutting out my smock. I had barely enough of the fabric and ended up cheating on the grain line for the cuffs and the yoke. But cut it out I did!
First I gathered the smock’s back and front to fit the yoke:
The rest of the steps flew along fairly quickly, though I realized when I reached the pocket step that I had failed to cut four of each (and wouldn’t have had enough material anyway). No worries, though, because I know another trick for giving a pocket a flap without using a lining. I topstitched them in place and loved the result:
The 3/4-length sleeves end in cuffs that fasten with a cufflink-style closure. I love the look of turned-back cuffs!
With the small scraps of fabric left over, I decided to make covered buttons, which give any project a really sophisticated finish:
After ironing crisply, it was time to try on the entire outfit! I am really pleased with the results. Personally, I prefer a stretch tummy band to an open skirt panel (feels more secure to me), but this pencil skirt turned out really cute (next time I make one, I’ll opt for a non-stretch material, however). The smock is roomy and comfortable and has a very smart look to it with the collar turned up and those cufflink-style sleeves. I can see why ladies from the 1950s to 1980s adored the smock. It’s easy to wear and keeps a body cool (unlike today’s sausage-skin bodycon dresses that trap heat and sweat–ugh!).
I’ll definitely have another go at this darling pencil skirt, though I think I will modify it to include a stretch panel instead of the opening. I’m also eager to modify my 1950s shirt dress pattern (sigh, still under construction) to accommodate a tummy with a slightly higher front waistline and longer skirt. I’ll keep you posted if I get around to it before my due date in April!
Update: January 26, 2017
While working on my ladies’ 1950s shirt dress pattern design (coming ASAP!), I realized how easily I could add a maternity option by raising the front waistline and adding length to the skirt front to accommodate a tummy bump. I’m tickled pink with these results, and this alteration is definitely going into the final pattern!
Do you have a favorite maternity style? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!