Wednesday, May 14, 2014

18th Century Maternity Fashions...what they wore while waiting

Sarah Churchill, 1700, after Sir Godfrey Knelle (is she, or isn't she?)
Over the years I have seen maternity styles change from those of my child-bearing years when we wore loose-fitting dresses or loose-fitting tops over skirts or pants with stretchy panels that we pulled over our bulging bellies, to those of my daughters' generation in which snug-fitting, stretchy dresses or snug-fitting, stretchy tops are worn over skirts or pants whose waistbands fit just below the bulging bellies. With Mother's Day, just passed, it made me ponder what our pregnant 18th century ancestresses wore while awaiting the big day.

Replica of 18th century maternity corset (
With the lack of modern methods of birth control as well as the need for birthing large numbers of babies to ensure enough survived to help out on the farm or even to carry on the family name or business, the 18th century woman often found herself in a state of pregnancy. You might consider some of these dear ladies, chronically pregnant (and, unfortunately, sometimes terminally pregnant with maternal death in childbirth not an uncommon occurrence.)  So, what did the well-dressed woman in the "family way" wear in an era of tight corsets? 

Robe Volante, 1720, Kyoto Costume Institute
Natalia Alexeievna, by Alexander Roslin, 1775
Until late in the 18th century, stiff corsets with equally stiff stays were the everyday wear of all women, whether high-born aristocrat or hard-working kitchen maid. Unlike those crazy folks of fashion in the later Victorian era who continued to wear tight bindings throughout pregnancy, 18th century women were free to at least loosen their corsets to accommodate their expanding waistlines and growing babies. There were corsets made especially for maternity wear that not only laced up in the back, as usual, but also up the front and both sides. Much clothing was pinned and tied together so the lady "in waiting" could adjust her gowns and bodices accordingly. Some fashions of the early 18th century provided convenient camouflage of the burgeoning baby-bellies. One of these was called robe volante, a loose fitting over-dress that was, at first, deemed appropriate as in-home or informal wear, but later worn in more formal settings among both pregnant and non-pregnant women. Some women customized their husbands' long waist-coats to wear over their gowns and petticoats. If the triangular-shaped fabric called a stomacher, which was pinned to the front of the bodice covering the corset, became too small for madam, she could drape long scarves in front to hide the corset.

I am certain many a lady breathed (literally) a sigh of relief when 1800 brought about the temporary end of the corseted stays and the fashion became loose, flowing empire-waisted gowns, a comfortable style for ladies no matter their state of maternity (or lack, thereof.) 

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! 

Portrait of María Luisa de Borbón y Vallabriga by  Francisco Goya, 1800


Juliet Waldron said...

Loved your "terminally pregnant" quip. (Ah for the good old days--all you retro-politicians--where women routinely died in childbirth/or of having just too many pregnancies.) Lovely pictures, to illustrate, your subject as well too. Sounds as if you live in Heaven... :)

Kathryn Louise Wood said...

Thanks, Juliet! So glad you enjoyed the post. I do love living in Edenton. It truly is alive with history and a walk through the church cemeteries is indication of how many children (and mothers) died long before their time. Come down and see us sometime. I know you'd love

Anonymous said...

Actually, I did research on a late 19th cen. dress in the collection of the University of Washington in Seattle that seemed an obvious maternity dress. I'm not sure when that term came into use, though I have a WW1 era catalog that uses it. The under-structure of the dress has multiple places, at least 3 if I recall correctly, where the waist, bust, etc. could be laced to accommodate a changing shape. The center front panel of the dress, which fell from the neck to the hem, was loose-ish and had a partial belt across it from the more structured part of the rest of the dress so it looked like it could be let out as needed. Of course, it's been 40 yrs. since I've seen the dress and the research paper didn't get saved, or I can't find it. I remember it as being quite a showy dress, red silk brocade, maybe w/ flame sort of motifs. When I looked at fashion illustrations of the era, I began to see other dresses which looked adaptable

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