Even if you didn’t watch the super bowl, you probably heard about Rihanna’s performance, which doubled as a nation-wide public pregnancy announcement. What a show! Whether or not you like Rihanna, her music, and her style, her approach to dressing her pregnant body is nothing short of revolutionary. To understand why, we need to delve a bit deeper into the history of maternity wear, and Western society’s aversion to women’s pregnant bodies.
As this Fast Company article explains, starting in the Victorian era, society began to assess a woman’s value based on her “piety, purity, submission, and domesticity…In a puritanical culture where sex was framed as something women ‘endured’ in order to become mothers, pregnancy was an uncomfortable reminder of the ‘sin’ necessary to have children.” In other words, pregnancy was seen as a physical reminder of a woman’s sexuality, and therefore needed to be concealed. Often referred to as “confinement,” women were expected to stay at home for the duration of their pregnancies. If they left the house, they were expected to conceal their growing bellies as much as possible.
What I personally find fascinating about this is not only how much it pervades modern culture, even in 2023, but also the extent to which we have internalized it as normal, rather than as a religious cultural construct. During both of my pregnancies, I often felt the need to conceal my belly, especially in a corporate office environment. This was partly out of fear for my job security (afterall, we still formally refer to pregnancy as a “disability”), and partly out of a sense of propriety. Although I was unconscious of it at the time, I believe something in me felt that it was indecent to visibly remind my office workers of the fact that I had an active sex life. To make matters worse, in addition to this internalized puritanical body-fear I was suddenly grappling with, my growing belly seemed to draw all kinds of unwanted attention. Strangers would make comments about my body out of the blue, in line for coffee, at the checkout, even shout things from moving cars. People I had never met would ask to put their hands on my abdomen, or lather me with unsolicited advice. It was easier to just hide.
Rihanna’s choice to bear her bump proudly and dress in a way that celebrates her pregnancy has drawn all kinds of negative criticism. The press has repeatedly called it “indecent” and “naked” - adjectives they rarely employ to describe midriff-bearing women who are not with child - further evidence of the lingering effects of our puritanical roots.
Interestingly, things were not always this way. As this article explains, “Rihanna’s bump-centric styles were also popular among the Tudors and Georgians.” In 1973, it was even popular to wear a “belly pad” under your dress, as an imitator of pregnancy. “Marcus Gheeraerts’s Portrait of a Woman in Red (below) is a wonderful example of this trend. Rather than being hidden away, the impending arrival of an aristocratic heir was performed and celebrated on canvas and through fashion.”
So where does this leave us? Despite a slight widening of choices in maternity apparel since the Victorian era, maternity style is still dominated by fast fashion brands creating “cheap garments for deliberate obsolescence.” As this wonderful excerpt from Designing Motherhood explains, “in the realm of high fashion, designers, working at fashion houses still overwhelmingly helmed by men, create rarified garments to be worn by atypically sized runway models. This big business public spectacle makes it into the permanent collections of storied museums, while fashion made for and by women with equal aesthetic merit for life stages like pregnancy is passed over because seasons trump trimesters.”
There are a few outliers. I consider Hatch to be my only real competitor in this space, and even then, I find their clothing to be substandard in terms of design, quality of materials, and sustainability/ethics. On the one hand, I understand the reluctance to invest in expensive pieces for a temporary need, which is why we are so keen on designing things that look good afterwards too, and in integrating a resale market into our platform. On the other hand, I see women spending thousands of dollars on trend-driven designer clothing that will look outdated in a year’s time (which is shorter than the duration of time needed for maternity clothing, since it’s really 9 months in, 9 months out for any one pregnancy). This latter observation has led me to conclude that the real obstacle to women investing in high-quality clothing for pregnancy is not, in fact, the temporary nature of the condition, but rather our esteem of women’s pregnant bodies. What does it say about our culture that women are willing to invest thousands to celebrate their young, non-gravid shape, but then, at this miraculous and wonderful time in their lives - the growing of a brand new human! - they resort to fast fashion and their husband’s old t-shirts? Personally I think we can do better, and cultural icons like Rihanna are helping the culture to shift. I, for one, am grateful for that superbowl performance, and while I don’t have any red jumpsuits planned for this first collection, I’ll certainly consider it for our next!