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Friday, March 18, 2016

Maternity Wear in the Gilded Age

Due to a present need for maternity wear in my own life, I started wondering what life was like for a pregnant woman who was also part of Gilded Age society.  Women generally took a reprieve from the public eye during this time, but was this the case for their entire pregnancy?  Would women use their clothing to embrace their shape or try to hide it?

It is true that pregnancy was a private subject during the Gilded Age and women were quiet about the subject.  It was not socially acceptable to flaunt a growing belly in public during the nineteenth century.  Any celebrating was saved until the actual birth of the child, which was partially due to higher mortality rates for infants and mothers and partially due to what was deemed an acceptable conversational topic in society.  The fact that the topic was private and not shared or discussed publicly certainly limits the sources that were left behind, but some examples of maternity wear and corsets remain.  In a society in which corsets were worn by all women and the ideal was a 15 inch waist, how did women deal with their expanding waistlines?  Today, maternity girdles are occasionally worn by women to support their growing midsection, but about 100 years ago, maternity corsets were worn to help minimize or mask the appearance of a growing bump.  These corsets were worn by many women despite warnings from the medical community that lacing too hard could harm the baby or the mother's organs (Check out this recent video on modern day corsetry).  Advertisements for corsets emphasized their safety, but it was up to the women to avoid lacing them too tight.

Maternity Corset

Lane Bryant

Much of what we know about maternity clothing and corsets can be found in the ads of Lane Bryant. The clothing company, which is today known for its specialty in plus sized women's clothes, was a pioneer in the market of maternity clothes during the early 20th century.  Before clothes made specifically for pregnant women were available, most women had to alter their existing clothing.   Maternity clothes that were available to a mass audience can really be traced back to a young Lithuanian immigrant named Lena Himmelstein.  Lena married a man named David Bryant, but he soon passed away and she became a widowed mother who supported her family by sewing.  When she took out a bank loan with the assistance of her brother-in-law, her name was misspelled as Lane, and the business became Lane Bryant.  Bryant's shop on Fifth Avenue in NYC opened in 1904 and she soon began to specialize in maternity wear.


Bryant's designs were popular with upper class client as well as working class women, and she implemented new technology and time saving measures to increase production exponentially.  Once newspapers agreed to include ads that featured the topic of pregnancy, she sold out of her entire stock.  In addition to the storefront, Bryant did a big business through phone and mail orders.  This was an attractive way for many pregnant women to shop if they did not feel up to venturing out into public.


New York Times Ad, August 24, 1919

Lane Bryant ads, such as the one depicted here, reveal that pregnancy was still something that should be hidden.  It even insinuates that a pregnant figure was cause for social embarrassment.  Most ads promoted maternity clothes as a way to conceal pregnancy and still look stylish.  They emphasize that the clothing can allow a woman to retain a "normal appearance."  Ads boasted that the clothing was "so cleverly cut and draped that no one suspects your condition" and the clothing could help you enjoy "a healthful normal social life with feeling the slightest embarrassment."  Items for sale included dresses, suits, coats, skirts, waists, negligees, and brassieres.


Maternity Clothing

Some examples of maternity wear remain and these dresses show how a woman's larger shape would be accommodated but not emphasized.  Bustles were still fashionable on dresses in the 1880s and the bustle was usually larger in the back of the dress than the woman's stomach protruding in the front!

1880s Maternity Dress - Wikimedia Commons
It was surprising to find an example of a maternity wedding dress because children were supposed to be conceived only after a couple was married.  Occasionally women would claim that they gave birth to a child "early" in order to publicly proclaim that the child was in fact conceived after the wedding had taken place.  Weddings that took place after a woman was "in the family way" would often happen quietly, which makes it unusual to see an example of such an opulent maternity wedding dress.  The dress below is from the 1880s and made of ribbed silk and ivory satin, with silk fringe and lace trimmings on the collar and cuffs.  The cream taffeta cape has embroidered detailing, and there are no details about its original owner, but it was auctioned in England in 2013.  Perhaps this dress was worn by a recent widow, quickly remarried.


Maternity Wedding Dress, circa 1880s


Ruth Mills, Mother

Ruth Livingston Mills had 3 children; twin daughters born in June 1883 and a son born in August 1884, just 14 months later!  I looked for traces of her social activities during the time when she was pregnant and found relatively little.  In April 1884, the New York Times lists her attendance at the Bachelor's Ball in New York City with Ogden, but that was the last trace of her name in the newspaper until her son's christening.

Though she may have stopped entertaining while with child, Ruth Mills was already hosting events in Newport in early August 1883, just over six weeks after the birth of her twins.  She wasted little time returning to the social scene, but ceased to entertain during the later months of her pregnancies.

Most women of Ruth Mills' social status went into confinement during the later months of pregnancy.  This was considered to be most beneficial to the health of the mother and the infant.  Not all women were confined for the last months of their pregnancy, however, and several upper class women continued their full social schedule up until the ninth month.  Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough, remembers being laced tightly to fit into her costume for the Duchess of Devonshire's Jubilee Costume Ball in 1897.  The ball was held on July 2nd and Consuelo's first son was born on September 18th of the same year.  Even though she was due to give birth in two months, Consuelo was called upon to act as if nothing was different with her body and carry on her place in English society.

The Duchess of Marlborough, dressed in the role of "the wife of the French Ambassador at the court of Catherine the Great of Russia, while seven months pregnant.


Life as a pregnant woman was very different for working class women.  Many working class women were not able to stop working while they were pregnant and some continued to work until they gave birth, which meant that they certainly needed suitable clothing to wear.  Working class women also tended to have more children than wealthier women and in larger families the women needed to continue to work and find the proper maternity wear during these months.  Companies such as Lane Bryant carried both high-end and low-end garments, so it was possible for the working class to afford ready-made items in addition to sewing their own.  Yet women of all classes dressed to conceal their pregnancy and if possible, stayed home when it became to difficult to conceal.  Certainly styles and society have changed drastically through the present day when many women are eager to wear clothing that embraces their shape and does not hide it.


6 comments:

  1. Thank you for this information. Very interesting. And how uncomfortable the women must have been!

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  4. No one knew my mother was expecting either of the two times. She was slightly heavy, lost weight during each pregnancy, healthy and worked as a farm wife. The one ones who knew was my father (of course), her mother & the doctor. When birth announcements were sent out, people thought it was a joke.

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