British Columbia

Clothes make the mom: Vancouver fashion show highlights historic maternity fashion

A special charity event benefiting an organization that supports maternal and infant health in Uganda showcases maternity fashion through history.

Charity event benefits organization that supports maternal and infant health in Uganda

A line-up of 'mothers to be' participate in a 'Mother-To-Be Of The Year' fashion competition in 1971. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A Vancouver historian says a new fashion show documents how the trajectory of maternity fashion parallels the expansion of women's rights over time.

Ivan Sayers — who is putting together the show — says the way women dress during pregnancy can say a lot about how a society views and treats women.

For example, he says in the 19th century girls from wealthy, high-status families would start wearing some kind of foundational undergarment when they were very young — even during sleep.

"The corsets had to be very tight, especially when she was in bed. The concept was — at the time —  that a child only grew during sleep," he said.

By the time that girl was 16 or 17, Sayers said she might not be able to walk or support herself without a corset as her muscles would have weakened.

"When she started to have pregnancies, she would have birth problems. She would have labour problems. When the doctor or midwife would say push, she couldn't," he said.

"It's absolutely insane, but fashion is not logical. Vanity isn't logical. Common sense is not common … but what can you do?"

From left to right: a frilly blue and white cotton two-piece outfit from 1903 depended on a tiny waist; a black dress from 1920 is loose, coinciding with women's roles and clothing becoming less constraining; a 1960 pumpkin orange pleated cotton dress celebrated pregnancy; a wine-coloured dress from 1949 had a side tab that would accommodate a growing baby bump. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

The fashions in the show mainly focus on the 20th century, from fussy Edwardian era dresses requiring tiny waists to lush, flowing gowns from the 1970s.

"There was a time when pregnancy for women of a certain social or financial situation, a pregnancy was awkward, not to be discussed. Everybody understood but no one acknowledged it socially," Sayers said.

"I think there was a moral conservatism that extended even to married relationships and you just simply weren't supposed to even acknowledge a pregnancy.

"A lot of times once a pregnancy started to develop and show, [the mom-to-be] stayed home. She went into confinement ... As months went by, she would miraculously reappear with a child."

Listen to CBC's Margaret Gallagher interview Ivan Sayers:

After the brutality of the Second World War, pregnancy — and the need to replenish the population — began to be celebrated more broadly.

Sayers also pointed out a bright pumpkin-coloured dress from the 1960s.

"The woman who would have bought that would have been so happy to have her pregnancy and anticipate having a child that it would have been like a neon sign. Hey look at me, I'm happy and I'm going to be happier."

Sayers says women today "do not apologize for a pregnancy." Earlier this year, superstar Beyonce announced her pregnancy via an Instagram photoshoot. (@beyonce/Instagram)

Today, he says the modern woman acknowledges and celebrates her pregnancy albeit in comfortable spandex and T-shirts.

"The lesson of history generally is you're better off now. I think that's particularly true for women. It's nowhere near perfect but it's better than it was ... [but] no one seems to apologize for a pregnancy anymore which is healthy and positive."

"Embracing the Bump" takes place on Sunday June 11th at 2 p.m. PT at the HR MacMillan Space Centre Auditorium.

All proceeds from the show support Shanti Uganda, a charity that supports maternal and infant health in Uganda.

With files from Margaret Gallagher