Editor’s Note: Join us at the Maryland Historical Society on Wednesday, August 12, at 11am as our Costume Interns detail their findings from this summer’s rehousing efforts!
By: Emily Bach
During the 19th century it was not uncommon for women to wear restrictive garments while pregnant as a means to disguise their pregnancy. Within the costume collection we have rehoused one of such undergarment: an 1850’s maternity corset. This peculiar item differs from other corsets. Rather than being laced in the back, this corset’s lacing is located on either side of the abdomen, which allowed a woman to loosen the garment as her stomach grew. Along with the differing lacing location, the back of corset has no boning except for one bone that runs across the waistline, creating an unusual bowed out silhouette. Women wore these maternity corsets as corsetry restricted abdomen growth temporarily due to its constriction, allowing women to hide their pregnancy for an extra few weeks or even months, if they were lucky. Pregnancy during the Victorian era was not a happy occasion for many women, causing this desire for a woman to hide her condition.
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Pregnancy for many women, regardless of social class, meant a loss in freedom. Working-class women frequently lost employment with the discovery of pregnancy, resulting in a loss of economic independence. With the Industrial Revolution emphasizing speed and constant productivity for mass production, pregnancy did not mesh well with the factory environment. Because pregnancy caused women to carry extra weight and tire more easily, employers feared women would not be able to keep up with the rapid pace and, therefore, slow down production and profit. It was highly common for factory owners to fire pregnant women. Without work, these working-class women who previously helped provide financial stability to their families now became a financial burden. In order to avoid this situation, these women masked their condition from their employers and their families for as long as possible. Middle and Upper-Class women experienced this loss of freedom as well within their own homes. Many higher-status women attended lavish balls and parties, dressed extravagantly for late-night concerts, and participated in other public events, but pregnancy called for women to retire from these enjoyments. Doctors and physicians recommended intensive bed rest for pregnancy, so women accustomed to constant entertainment had to remain in their home for the majority of the day. Refusing to give up their eventful lives, middle-class and upper-class women hid their pregnancy and avoided any recommendation of bedrest.
In addition to independence, Victorian society’s expectations pressured women to continue wearing corsets during pregnancy. Victorian society depicted a perfect woman as meek and virtuous, even when married. Pregnancy contradicted this ideal image by providing physical evidence that women participated in sexual intercourse. Because pregnancy proved women were not these demure creatures, women were expected to hide their pregnancy from public eye to avoid any discomfort for others. Along with virginity and innocence, women were valued for femininity. During this era, femininity was based on a woman’s tiny waist. Because a woman’s abdomen grew with pregnancy, many women felt they lost their youth and beauty in the eyes of society. In a desperate attempt to hold onto her femininity she simply continued donning her corsets to create the illusion of a small waist, and therefore beauty. The lacings on the sides of the maternity corset were meant to be loosened as the baby grew, yet women tight-laced these instead in order to maintain the preferred hourglass shape.
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The role of women also changed due to the Industrial Revolution, influencing maternal corsetry. Families based their wealth on access to material goods, which required significant funds. Women were expected to help limit family size in order to save money. Women utilized birth control methods to control family size, but if these did not work, many times they relied on abortion. Wearing tightly laced corsets not surprisingly had negative health effects on the unborn baby. It was not uncommon for a pregnancy to end in miscarriage due to tight-lacing. Although devastating to women attempting to grow a family, women fearing financial strife depended on corsetry as a means to control family size and avoid unwarranted scorn from her family.
Maternity corsetry exposes how Victorian Europe and America perceived pregnancy as a burdensome and unfeminine condition. Women wore constrictive garments to avoid the inevitable changes to her body and her societal status.
Summers, Leigh. "Corsetry and the Invisibility of the Maternal Body." The Berg Fashion Library. The Berg Fashion Library, 2001. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.
O'Brien, Alden. "Maternity Dress." The Berg Fashion Library. The Berg Fashion Library, 2005. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.