Catriona Fisk explores the material and visual record of fashions and dress for pregnant women across the nineteenth century.
It is a fact generally acknowledged that pregnancy was a central component of women’s historical experiences. Just as widely accepted is that for many women in the past the making, wearing and maintenance of clothing was a dominant feature in their lives. Yet peruse most accounts of women’s experiences in the nineteenth century – or even histories of childbirth – and you will find a telling gap in the narrative.
Rarely does the question of how pregnancy and dress interacted feature in histories of reproduction. Where it does creep in, the focus is often on the horrors of tight lacing in pregnancy.
Less commonly explored is how the act of dressing for pregnancy affected the balance between a woman’s fashionable, individual, and reproductive identities.
Jill Matus, in her introduction to Unstable Bodies: Victorian Representations of Maternity and Sexuality relates a reaction to a Victorian novel that depicted the pregnancy of one of its characters. An anonymous reviewer of Elliot’s Adam Bede likened the details of an unfortunate pregnancy to “the rough notes of a man midwives’ conversation with a bride”, wishing instead for an imagined past of authors who “if they gave us a baby, gave it us all at once.”
This reaction is evidence of a genuine nineteenth-century squeamishness about the depiction of pregnant bodies in print. Livia Woods and Cynthia Northcutt Malone observed in nineteenth-century literature a similar pattern where decorum required the narrative concealment of the physical reality of pregnancy as a precursor to motherhood. Instead and in contrast to transgressive figures such as the adulteress, respectable women of good character are simply announced as having become a mother, a kind of infant-ex-machina.
The myth of universal antenatal confinement of pregnant women renders them largely invisible, obscuring both their dress and their physical movement. Taking literary representations and medical histories as sole sources it is all too easy to assume that pregnancy in the nineteenth century did not leave any historical trace. In addition, many earlier women’s histories (e.g. Lewis’s In the Family Way) provided valuable analysis of women’s personal writing about childbearing, but, written before the ‘material turn’, naturally focused less on the material culture evidence. Therefore, the impression created is that pregnancy is an aspect of women’s lives that like so many others that remains hidden under the cloak of Victorian sexual and social mores.
This is not the case. Once you start looking for them, reproductive bodies are everywhere.
The streets of the Victorian Goldfields included shops selling breast pumps and nipple shields for the nursing mother, mid-century Ballarat registered a remarkable baby boom, those babies having had, as Clare Wright noted, to have come from somewhere. Queen Victoria recalled in later life how she hated being stared at in drawing rooms during her first pregnancy.
Women of far less social standing and security than the monarch had little choice about seclusion before birth, often required to continue working as photographed in 1909 at the Globe Cotton Mill, Georgia, USA. A satirical print from early nineteenth-century France of a woman gnawing on the arm of a passer-by entitled ‘Pregnancy craving’ hints that the public would recognise a pregnant figure in the street as amusing, even a little crass, but not unthinkable. Later in the century photography captures pregnant women near, but not hidden away in, the physical space of the home.
Surviving garments that were, or could have been, worn during pregnancy complicate the image of women in this period of their lives. A claret satin gown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one example, as an expanded abdomen is balanced against stylish colour, shape and decoration. Such an outfit implies that the wearer was to be seen in it, pregnancy notwithstanding, and wished to present herself accordingly.
More apparently domestic garments, such as a loose-fronted brown dress, are easily and not accidentally adaptable to the changes of a pregnancy. Less formal in intention, the built-in adjustability of the belted waistline across the front section mean they were recommended apparel for the expectant mother. Having established that pregnant women did venture outside the physical space of the home, the implication is that these domestic garments would still be worn for some form of ‘audience’, primarily family, friends and neighbours.
Looking at women’s letters and diaries supports the continued and varying visibility of women throughout their pregnancies.
The diary of the tragic Mary Watson is one example. Temporarily in Cooktown for the birth of her son in 1881, Mary kept a daily track of her busy final months of pregnancy, furiously sewing, washing and cleaning. She noted explicitly the occasions when she did stay home all day and see no one, rather suggesting that on the other days she was outside, or seeing other people. When she records, a week before the event, that she got up and got dressed, then felt so ill she had to return to bed, it implies that even at nearly full term it was usual for her to fully dress of a morning.
Elsewhere, Mary Braidwood Mowle, in rural 1850s New South Wales, records going for walks and drives and even cutting a rather maudlin figure by wandering around a graveyard eight-months pregnant, reading gravestones and contemplating her own mortality. The occurrences of pregnancy in the historical record, of which the above are only a small sample, all required dress and the pregnant body to interact to various extents, from adapted everyday dress to garments fit for a queen.
This highlights that thinking about material culture, such as dress objects, opens up interpretive paths that can create subtler pictures of lived experience. The shamefulness of the pregnant body that can be read in literature, medical writing and advice guides should not be taken as a complete record of experiences of reproduction in the period. Investigating the role of dress in that experience utilises the power of material culture research to bring the study of pregnancy out from under the bedclothes.
In the era of stretch fabrics and hyper-visible, specially-designed maternity clothing, the contrasts between modern and historical dressed pregnant bodies are interesting. Adaptability and easy integration into an ‘everyday’ wardrobe allowed the nineteenth-century woman a less exposed progression through pregnancy, but the same folds that gently covered her abdomen could be interpreted as hiding something shameful.
The twenty-first century woman, on the other hand, has an increasingly specific range of clothing purpose-designed for pregnancy in any situation. Yet that specificity means maternity fashion is clothing set apart from the everyday, creating a division between reproduction and the fashioned identity of daily life. Common to both periods is that the visibly pregnant form is a site where social issues, style, ideas of femininity and plain, old-fashioned gossip (per the pages of the Daily Mail) are contested.
Catriona Fisk is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney, whose work bridges dress history, material culture, women’s and gender history and museology. Her doctoral research investigates dress for pregnancy in the eighteenth and nineteenth century through surviving garments in public collections. She is also a freelance curator and researcher, most recently working on the exhibition and catalogue Connecting Threads at Newstead House, Brisbane.
Follow Catriona on Twitter @KitCatFisk.
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