Left: Jennie Chancey wearing a Regency gown during her first pregnancy
I was six weeks pregnant in this 1996 photo and didn’t know it. Regency gowns would be my best friend for years to come!

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,

Argunov Portrait of the comtesse Cheremetiev, 1803

French artist Jean-August Ingres created this delicate pencil and watercolor portrait of his pregnant wife, Madeleine, in 1814:

Madeleine Ingres, 1814 pregnancy portrait

The fantastic Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion exhibition featured maternity outfits from this era, as you can see in the photo below:

Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion maternity outfits.

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.

Jennie Chancey and son, late 2001.
I made this Regency gown with piping at neckline and sleeves and wore it a lot between 2001 and 2004 through two pregnancies.

 

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.

Jennie Chancey at Chawton Cottage, 2009

Jennie Chancey at Chawton Cottage, 2009

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:

Jennie Chancey, wearing a Regency maternity dress in 2009

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).

A Regency fashion plate depicting a mother breastfeeding her infant.
A Regency fashion plate depicting a mother breastfeeding her infant. There are actually a lot of breastfeeding portraits from this time period and earlier.

 

I made a couple of these for myself and nursed two daughters and a set of twins easily.

Jennie in 2003, wearing a bib-front Regency gown for breastfeeding.
Drop-front (or “bib-front”) Regency gown.

 

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:

Jennie Chancey maternity dress
This is a modern dress with a slightly empire waist that I wore while pregnant with my first daughter in 2002. I copied it because it was so comfortable and pretty.

 

Finding Classic Maternity Styles in Other Decades
Tucked 1930s dress with maternity-friendly jacket
This 1930s pattern from my collection doesn’t include a maternity dress, but it does feature a loose jacket that was definitely worn by expecting moms in this decade.

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:

Early 1940s maternity dress with adjustable waistline.
This early 1940s pattern features an adjustable waistline to accommodate a growing figure, but the loose jacket was expected once things got really big!

 

1940s pattern with adjustable waist jacket
Another 1940s pattern with a removable belt–the better to allow the loose jacket to hide the evidence! The wrap front skirt expands as the waistline grows.

 

1940s maternity ensemble
By the late 1940s, we’ve dispensed with the belt altogether.

 

Shaking Things Up in the 1950s

And then it happened. To be more specific, Lucille Ball happened:

Lucille Ball in a smock and trousers

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.

Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz
Lucy wore a lot of really pretty tops that included feminine touches even while they covered the baby bump.

 

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.

1950s maternity skirt with open tummy panel.
1950s maternity skirt pattern with open tummy panel.

 

1950s maternity smock pattern
Here’s a very “I Love Lucy” smock pattern from the 1950s. Now it was perfectly fine to be obviously pregnant, though loose tops were still de rigueur. However, these are really cute and comfortable–a vast improvement over the 1930s and ’40s maternity wear. And there are the stylish pencil skirts!

 

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.

Ca. 1952 maternity pattern with pencil skirt and smock top
There’s the famous cut-out for the pregnant belly, allowing the wearer to enjoy a slim pencil skirt all the way to the end of pregnancy. The gathered smock top covers everything nicely.

 

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.

Fabrics for the maternity skirt and smock

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:

Facing pinned to the tummy opening on the pencil skirt.

And here’s the facing sewn in place, turned and pressed (sorry the shots are so dark!):

Open tummy panel with facing stitched in place.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!

 

Cutting out the 1950s maternity smock.

First I gathered the smock’s back and front to fit the yoke:

Smock front and back gathered to 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:

Pocket and collar details on the maternity smock

The 3/4-length sleeves end in cuffs that fasten with a cufflink-style closure. I love the look of turned-back cuffs!

Cufflink-style sleeve closure on the maternity smock

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!

Maternity version of my Ladies' Classic 1950s Shirt Dress (coming soon!)

Do you have a favorite maternity style? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

11 comments on “Retro Maternity Style”

  1. What a fascinating topic! Many of the maternity styles I’ve seen for my two pregnancies (babies born 2013 and 2015) have been wrap styles in stretchy jersey fabric. What I love about them is how versatile they are – you can wear them from the waist thickening point early on and adjust as your body expands. And then they work really well postnatally too. In fact I’ve carried on wearing some items as they can work as normal tops/dresses too.

    I wonder where the squeamishness around pregnancy came from and why? I’ve noticed older friends (aged 70+) came still be tentative about using the word “pregnant”.

    • Hi, Rachel! Yes, I also love the new wrap-style dresses in stretchy jersey material. The best part is you can still wear them post-partum to breastfeed, so they really stretch the budget. 😀 I have read a lot about changing attitudes toward childbearing over the centuries, and, while I would hesitate to pin down a single point, I’d have to say that Queen Victoria’s own loathing of the pregnant state must mark a major turning point from the quite frank, open acknowledgement of pregnancy in the preceding centuries (right up to the mid-1830s you find pregnancy portraits and mentions of pregnancy in books, letters, and diaries). Women went into “confinement” from the Georgian era forward, but it wasn’t due to prudishness about the pregnant body but due to the hazards of pregnancy and childbirth. The last two to three months were usually spent strictly at home (no journeys over bumpy roads, no country dances, no socializing outside of the family home, basically).

      However, you don’t find any embarrassment about sex or pregnancy until the Victorian Era, and it’s not because the Victorians were prudes (far from it if you read letters and diaries of the time). Queen Victoria was very open about her enjoyment of the “conjugal couch” in her own diaries and letters, but she absolutely abhorred being pregnant and preferred not to be seen while expecting. I think royals (like celebrities today) set trends, and we surely have to believe that the queen’s attitude affected other women. Suddenly, pregnancy was something to be hidden as long as possible–and then women just didn’t go into social situations once the bump was too obvious to disguise. Winston Churchill’s mother shocked society by refusing to hide her pregnant state. In fact, she rode in a pony cart and attended a ball when seven months pregnant and went into labor prematurely 24 hours later. There was a lot of tsk-tsking at such behavior. This continued right through the Edwardian Era, and it wasn’t until the world had come through the horrors of WWI and witnessed so much atrocity that something as normal as pregnancy started to creep back into the public sphere. Maternity wear was developed in the ‘teens by Lena Bryant (whose name was misspelled by a banker and stuck as “Lane Bryant!”). But maternity clothes were still designed to hide the bump rather than celebrate it.

      Another key event was the medicalization of childbirth. Back before hospitals and maternity wards, births were social events, usually attended by all a woman’s female relatives and close friends. Surrounded by her support network, a woman gave birth without hiding what was going on — and actually celebrated by her midwife and female attendants. Home birth was completely normal, and older children knew what was going on as well. There was no mystery to pregnancy and childbirth. As birth slowly moved out of the home and into hospitals, it took on an aura of mystery and even shame (as a “dirty” process or a necessary evil). Fathers weren’t even allowed into delivery rooms until the natural childbirth trend started to return things to sanity in the late 1970s. I think this attitude had to have just as much to do with the hiding of pregnancy and childbirth for over a century as Victorian squeamishness.

      I should also note that these attitudes toward pregnancy really only manifested themselves in the middle and upper classes. The poor couldn’t afford to be coy about pregnancy and birth and were already marginalized by the rest of society. What did it matter if a pregnant belly stuck out? Poor women didn’t have the luxury of special clothes and just had to make do with what fit.

      It’s a fascinating topic, and I recommend The Benevolence of Manners: Recapturing the Lost Art of Gracious Victorian Living by Linda Lichter for a dip into Victorian attitudes and social mores. There are a lot of really good books about the history of pregnancy and childbirth if you feel like getting into all the nitty gritty. One is Lying In: A History of Childbirth in America by Richard Wertz.

      Happy reading!

  2. The outfit with the black pencil skirt is adorable – and versitile too! It would also work well any season, a big plus with maternity wear.

  3. This is a fascinating post!

    Something I have noticed is that my grandmother’s generation (born between 1925-1945) doesn’t have childbirth stories, other than getting a speeding ticket trying to get to the hospital on time and husbands pacing up and down in the waiting room. With the drugs and medicalization of birth, there just aren’t a lot of details that my grandma can tell — or maybe it is just the reticence to talk about it that you mention following the Victorian era.

    We also don’t talk about the need to make all your own baby clothes in past generations. There was no sense making girl clothes or boy clothes when you don’t know what you’re having until the child is born– too late to do much sewing– that’s why girls and boys alike wore the same things until they were toddlers. I kind of miss the gender-neutral infant layette… but not for modern gender sensibilities reasons, of course!

    Do you have any recommendations on breastfeeding-friendly dresses (ready-to-wear or sewing patterns) that don’t look too much like historical costume– but not spandex mini dresses either? I would wear Laura Ashley dresses and regency clothes all the time if I could but my husband is not into the historical look… I can do some sewing but am not an experienced fitter.

    • Very true observations, Chelsey! Knocking women out for childbirth with drugs also became popular in the 19-teens when a clinic in Germany pioneered the process. Women didn’t remember anything until waking up 12-14 hours later and having a baby brought to them. The method spread until its abuses were revealed (putting laboring women in straitjackets and tying them down while they thrashed and screamed through labor unconscious–yikes). Even into the 1940s women opted to be put almost completely under sedation. Heck, they even knocked my mom out to deliver me in 1972, and she really regretted having no memory of my birth.

      My father and grandfathers all wore dresses as babies. The oldest photo I have of my dad with his parents shows him at about a month old, wearing a dress and booties (that picture is in my second blog post about my grandparents). My father “graduated” to little boy button shorts when he was about a year old. My grandfather is in little romper shorts by about age three in his childhood photos. Photos of my great-grandfather, however, show him in little tunic dresses until about age three. It was also more practical to keep both genders in dresses until they were potty-trained.

      I’ve got breastfeeding options built into a lot of my patterns, but if you want to stick to designs that look more modern and less historical, then go for the 1940s Swing Dress Pattern (with this tutorial to make it nursing-friendly) or my new Ladies’ 1950s Wardrobe pattern, which will be published in April or May this year. The classic shirt dress from that new pattern has a button-front opening that allows nursing access. If you are petite enough to fit into the teen girls’ sizes, you can also use my Girls’ Classic 1950s Shirt Dress pattern. Finally, there are LOTS of free DIY nursing dress and top projects online. Follow this link to a free pattern for a knit wrap nursing dress that I love. Cute! I hope this helps, and happy sewing!

  4. I think the illustrations on that Butterick pattern with the cutout front are hilarious. Way to show a maternity pattern on an obviously-not-pregnant figure with a tiny waist, Butterick! lol

  5. I had no idea those patterns were for pregnancy! I love that pink smock. Looks like it would work great for post-partem, without that “maternity clothes” look (you know those ones with ties in the back). Thanks for sharing it Jenny!

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