Thursday, 13 February 2020

Baby Bumps In Corsets: Maternity Wear in the 17th and 18th Century

The 18th century is almost synonymous with the dramatic fashions of the time; the elaborate gowns with tiny waists and huge panniers are well recognized silhouettes from the time. Yet, the tightly laced bodices were hardly compatible with the growing midriff of a pregnant woman. Nevertheless, in an age with no birth control and where aristocratic marriages were contracted with the intention of producing an heir, women often went through many pregnancies. So, maternity wear was as necessary then as it is now - but how did it look?

In private, ladies (and gentlemen for that matter) were free to wear looser fitting clothing. However, in the stiff court ceremonies there were no room for such luxuries. Instead, women continued to wear their normal clothing and simply loosened their corset and, as their bellies grew, could exchange it for a different type of corset. It is little wonder that fainting fits were considered a normal sign that a woman was pregnant.

The corsets worn by a woman with child could be loosened both at the front and at the sides. The design was rather ingenious. In the beginning of the pregnancy, the corset could still be laced rather tightly but as the woman's stomach grew, laces at the side were gradually loosened depending on how far along she was. In this manner, it differed from the otherwise completely stiff whalebone corsets. But it should still be pointed out that she would be expected to wear a corset.

Corset (reproduction) of an 18th century pregnancy

Marie Adélaide of Savoy shocked the court at Versailles when she became pregnant and took off her corset. During this period - Louis XIV's era - it was well-known that the king loathed sloppiness in dress in his female companions. While the Duc de Bourgogne, her husband, supported her, she was eventually admonished to put the corset back on.

During the baroque age, the Adrienne gown was the standard pregnancy gown. In this period, there was less focus on a tight and slim silhouette which would become fashionable in the middle of the 18th century. Instead, the Adrienne gown was very loose-fitting and had no actual waistline. Layers upon layers fell from the bust and thus covered the expanding waistline. The Adrienne came into style in 1703 and was named after an actress who played the leading lady in the play by the same name. However, as the Duchesse de Bourgogne found out, Louis XIV was not best pleased to see the women of his court in too loose clothing.

An Adrienne gown seen from the side

Interestingly enough, the robe à la Française was originally meant to be a pregnancy gown and as such was very informal. But as the 18th century progressed it was tightened to conform to the tastes of the era and became the standard formal wear - overshadowed only by the grand habits.

It was only in the latter part of the pregnancy that court ladies were socially permitted to throw off the stiff court gowns. Considering that miscarriages were a common phenomenon, it is likely that this was allowed in order to protect the child. Another reason was that it simply was not possible for a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy to squeeze herself into her customary gown.

It should be said, that once these late months of pregnancy were reached, it was not looked down upon in the slightest to wear more loose-fitting clothes. Even the queen (or perhaps especially the queen, considering the importance of the child she was carrying) was allowed to relax her style. Marie Antoinette received the ambassador of Venice in such informal wear, for instance. Yet, she made sure to make her apologies and explain her state - which must have been fairly obvious but manners matter!

Billedresultat for 18th century levite gown
A woman wearing a lévite gown while playing with her monkey - as you do,
of course

When Marie Antoinette at long last conceived a child, she took hitherto unseen liberties when it came to her pregnancy clothing. A particular favourite in this aspect was the "lévite" gown which suited perfectly to both the queen's condition and her estate at Petit Trianon. The gown made no use of tightly laced whalebone corset but highlighted the waist with a scarf loosely bound in a knot. The sleeves, too, were looser which must have been a great comfort compared to the tight sleeves of a grand habit. According to Caroline Weber in her wonderful book "Queen of Fashion", she mention that by 1782, the lévites accounted for 1/3 of the queen's wardrobe. This in itself shows a change in society's attitude towards this new silhouette - at least at Petit Trianon.

Before Marie Antoinette donned her looser gowns, her predecessor, Marie Leszczynska, had fewer options. The Polish-born consort of Louis XV, endured a decade of almost constant pregnancies, so naturally, pregnancy clothing was a stable in her wardrobe. 

The term "maternity wear" did not actually exist in the 18th century. Today, we connect the term with not only clothing worn during pregnancy but sometimes also after. However, a lady at Versailles was expected to be back in her whalebone corset once she had staid out her period of bed-rest.

Natalia Alexeivna, Tsarevna of Russia, pregnant in 1775

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