All about maternity wear

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Maternity clothing is worn by women in some cultures as an adaptation to changes in body size during pregnancy.


A waistless maternity dress fits a pregnant woman in late 16th century Elizabethan England

Maternity dress (ca. 1880), Jacoba de Jonge-Collection in MoMu, Antwerp / Photo by Hugo Maertens, Bruges

Dresses did not follow a wearer's body shape until the Middle Ages. When western European dresses began to have seams, affluent pregnant women opened the seams to allow for growth. The Baroque Adrienne was a waistless pregnancy gown with many folds. In the time around the Adrienne dress, women wore men’s waist coasts. This clothing had laced vents in the back that allowed the wearer to adjust the size of the coat as she needed. The maternity dressed changed during the Georgian period and became practical. “The billowing fabric found in the Adrienne dress was again used in this era to accommodate changing bodies, but bibs were added at the bust line to permit breast feeding.” Aprons were also worn, to close the opening left by jackets. 19th century maternity clothing was tailored to hide pregnancy.

For many decades during the 20th century, maternity wear was considered a "fashion backwater." Pinafores were the most common style and were often sold through nursery shops. Maternity clothing hasn't generally been considered a potentially profitable area for most major clothing manufacturers. This is due to a belief that many women wouldn't purchase clothes intended for only a few months of wearing. However, with wide media interest in celebrity pregnancies beginning in the late 1990s, the maternity wear market grew 10% between 1998 and 2003. In 2006, Kate Bostock of Marks & Spencer said the demand for maternity clothes was growing because "Nowadays women are working during pregnancy, and travelling, and going to the gym, so their clothing needs are greater and more diverse."

Further developments in maternity clothing styles have meant that many maternity tops are also made to enable discreet nursing, extending the usable life of maternity clothes beyond just the period whilst pregnant.


Maternity clothes around the world have been undergoing significant changes. In both Eastern and Western cultures, there is greater demand for fashionable maternity clothes. In Western cultures the influence of celebrity culture means that pregnant women in the public eye are taking the lead on maternity fashion. As a result, pregnant women are no longer trying to hide or disguise their "baby bumps", instead choosing to wear garments which closely fit their new shape, often emphasising the bust and abdominal area. Fashion bloggers have caught on to the shift in perception too and began regularly discuss new styles and fabrics designed with the pregnant form in mind. High-tech fabrics such as elastane are the material of choice for maternity wear in Western cultures as they allow garments to be form-fitting while allowing the abdominal area to expand as necessary.

Women in Eastern cultures, however, have maintained a much greater sense of modesty when it comes to maternity wear. In both the Islamic and Asian cultures, maternity wear is much less fitted, hemlines are longer and necklines higher. Modern Islamic maternity wear uses fabrics with brighter colours and bolder prints. Aside from cultural modesty, Chinese women have sometimes sought to hide their second pregnancy in less shapely clothes because Chinese policy has dictated that they can only have one child. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, there is a fear of radiation from devices such as computers and mobile phones, especially during pregnancy. Even though there is no evidence to support this (according to WHO), Asian maternity wear is often manufactured from “anti-radiation” fabrics.


Pregnancy fashion took a dramatic turn in the 1990s, increasing the presence of baby bumps and tight fitted maternity wear. Not coincidentally this shift occurred during a time of major change for women in America. In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed by President Clinton which had been in the works for 9 years prior. This act protected women's jobs during pregnancy, giving women more freedom to show off their pregnancies.

This legislation allowed workers to have job protected leave for 12 weeks in the face of medical emergency and pregnancies. Up until this point, women were in danger of losing their jobs if they got pregnant. Unsurprisingly, maternity fashion's main aim at this point in time was concealment. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1979 only offered pregnant women a degree of temporary disability protection. This act was an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The amendment was ratified because of the court case General Electric V. Gilbert where an employer offered disability benefits that did not cover pregnancy. In fact, many business associations tried to argue against this coverage on the basis that pregnancy was a voluntary condition. This controversy took place during a time when 45 percent of the working class were women but only 25 percent of insurance plans had built in sick leave for pregnancy or pregnancy related illness. Before this act was passed, many women were fired on the grounds of their pregnancy. Women now had more job security during pregnancy and actually had government protected maternity leave. Interestingly, at the same time as these laws were being passed maternity fashion changed drastically. Fashion during pregnancy began to show off baby bumps with tight clothing. Currently, magazine articles discuss stylish mothers-to-be in figure hugging bodycon dresses, and shifts that hug their blossoming bump beautifully.


In the United States, there are a handful of companies that comprise the majority of the maternity clothing market. The two largest are Liz Lange Maternity and Destination Maternity which includes brands Motherhood, Pea in the Pod, Oh Baby and more. Popular clothing makers Gap and Old Navy also have a line of maternity clothes. Designer brands Citizens of Humanity, Seven For All Mankind and Joes Jeans make some maternity clothing as well.


Maternity clothing purchased from retail and department stores is in line or slightly higher with the cost of women's non-maternity apparel. Considering the short amount of time these items are worn, they can be considered very expensive by some women. In poorer countries and even in the United States, some women who cannot afford or simply don't want to spend large amounts of money on maternity clothing will simply wear either larger, looser clothing or even their husband's clothing. Additionally, some women buy second hand maternity clothes via yard sales and also used/consignment maternity clothes stores.

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