Missing from the books: the history of maternity wear
For Catriona Fisk, the moment that inspired her PhD came while watching TV.
“I saw a character in a period drama who was pregnant and wearing an adaptation of the day dress of the period and I thought, what on earth is she wearing?’” Fisk says.
A passionate historian, Fisk started digging into the question of what pregnant women wore prior to the advent of modern maternity fashion. To her surprise, she found very little information in the public domain. But her curiosity persisted, eventually leading her to enrol in a PhD in the Imagining Fashion Futures Lab in the UTS School of Design.
Led by Distinguished Professor Peter McNeil, one of the leading voices in global fashion research, the Imagining Fashion Futures Lab is dedicated to the study of the past, present and future of critical fashion, among other topics. Fisk’s PhD project, ‘Confined by History: Dress and the Maternal Body 1750-1900’ was a perfect fit.
“I knew there was one guy in Australia whose work aligned most with what I wanted to do. I knew his name, I knew his work, and so it was always going to be Peter,” she says.
I'm here to ask an important question: have you spent much time thinking about your three times great-grandmother's underwear? No? I'm shocked.
Well, rest assured, because I have! I'm a fashion historian, so I study the dress of the past.
Picture an 18th or 19th century dress, something elaborate and formal, tight waists and big skirts. Now picture that same dress worn by a pregnant woman, not so easy. Yet a woman 200 years ago would have an average of six children. By the mid-1800s 35% of married British women had more than eight. This represents a huge swathe of a woman's life and wardrobe. So it's surprising that we know little about how they actually dressed for pregnancy, or of that matter breastfeeding, at the time. It's that oversight my research set out to correct.
I travelled to museums on three continents, studying surviving garments. Drawing on material culture, a field which casts objects as emissaries from the past that open up often overlooked experiences, I tracked down measured and catalogued 300 garments for pregnancy and nursing. Clothes tell stories about who we are, and the stories that emerge from let out waist lines and slits cut through bodice’s were of both fashion and reproductive bodies. Negotiating motherhood is as complicated and relevant today as it was 200 years ago, and these stories undermine the idea of past mothers as undressed and invisible.
Take this object, a maternity corset, its wearers name has been lost to history, but its details reveal how she dressed. The very idea of a maternity corset may strike horror in contemporary eyes. But this piece has been altered to create space and add support, not to suppress and repress. Armed with such a garment, a pregnant woman could continue the gendered but hardly invisible activities of her normal life.
How we choose to cover ourselves is, and always has been, political, social and contentious. Just days ago, a woman breastfeeding at the Victoria and Albert Museum was asked to cover up, despite being surrounded by bare breasted statues. We articulate our traditions and measure our progress relative to a perception of the past. Any corruption of that corrupts our progress in the present. A fuller picture of how women managed the intimate and public aspects of motherhood in history is a fairer base for how we treat them today. I can't ask your grandmother's great-grandma how she managed, but I can ask her clothing. Thank you. [Applause]
Though her research was based at UTS, Fisk travelled extensively throughout her PhD. Much of her work was collections based, taking place in museums where she hunted through existing dress collections for clues about 18th and 19th century maternity clothing.
She’d originally set herself a goal of looking at roughly 150 pieces, but after visiting more than 50 museums in four countries, she wound up viewing more than 300 garments, all of which reflected the realities of pregnancy and breastfeeding in this era.
“Not all of them are what I would call ‘official’ maternity wear that I can prove were 100 per cent worn by a pregnant woman, but they all contained some trace of how women dressed while they were pregnant,” she says.
“For example, there’s a particular way of constructing an informal dress from the mid-19th century that’s really easily adaptable to pregnancy, and I found a lot of them in collections as possible maternity wear.
“A few of those examples had modifications like laces or drawstrings at the waist of the dress that would allow it to expand around a changing figure. To my mind, it seemed likely that these were maternity garments.”
Fisk also completed archival research in libraries and record offices. At one library, she came across a collection of letters sent between two female friends; much of the content revolved around the pregnancy of one of the letter writers, including questions about maternity attire. Another letter from a staymaker – someone who made corsets and other undergarments – contained detailed information about how such things could be adapted for pregnant clients.
At the core of Fisk’s discoveries was the finding that, despite contemporary beliefs that pregnant women in bygone times were completely hidden away, the reality was that maternity fashion was alive and well long before the present day.
“Though there were some exceptions, the main thing I discovered was that any assumption that women were unilaterally concealing or ashamed or anti-fashion about their bodies wasn’t accurate, but that equally their experience varied by individual status and circumstance,” she says.
How women dress may be the literal story of her PhD, but Fisk’s findings reveal much about the realities of how these women lived, as well as how our perceptions of their lives have shaped contemporary understanding of what a pregnant woman is and how she should present herself.
This research is presenting a great body of new work about the experience of pregnancy, which is a big gap in dress historical work.
“Within the immediate field I work in, this research is presenting a great body of new work about the experience of pregnancy, which is a big gap in dress historical work,” she says.
“But outside the world of fashion history, I think it’s interesting, because it confounds a lot of people’s expectations about women in the past – it presents a more diverse, more complex picture.
“These things matter because we formulate how we do things based on a sense or perception of how things were in the past, and if they’re wrong, it creates an uneven ground for when we talk about pregnant bodies today.”