Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

historic maternity dress

Great Expectations

If you’ve been having a hard time reconciling a burgeoning pregnant figure with historic clothing, there are some snazzy tricks the Original Cast used, and you can use them, too! Yes, wearing a wrapper for half a year is one option, but if you’re wanting a dress that looks like a normal dress, and can stretch through a pregnancy, and then be used post-partum, consider making an adjustable dress to start. (This is also a technique that can work if you need to have multi-fit dresses in a costume trunk!)

Mid-century styles actually make it easier to “dress the baby” than other eras; the rounder, slightly-higher waistlines of the 60s, for instance, are very forgiving through early pregnancy, and easy to use later, too.

Most women tend to gain inches through the torso and bust, but relatively few experience dramatic changes through the shoulders, so work up a copy of your base pattern that fits easily (but is not baggy) in the shoulders, and quite generously over the bust, with some decent expansion in the waist (say, 10″ across the front).

One way to do this is to slice up your waist-to-bust dart, and then over to the armscye. Swing the outer/side section of the bodice out to create a 5″ gap along the waistline (the section will “hinge” at the armscye), and trace the new, exaggerated shape. Leave your back bodice as-is. It’s nice to have something that really fits, and a smooth back bodice helps with the end-of-gestation large-as-a barn feeling.

If you’d like to preserve a bit of “this is a real dress” feeling for the very end of pregnancy, do run a very little bit of gathering to mimic a gathered-to-fit bodice style.

Cut a strip of fabric (straight grain is great, bias if you need to) about 2-3″ wide, and of a length sufficient to span your newly-enlarged front bodice waists. This will be used to create an interior waistband or facing, through which three narrow tapes will be threaded in stitched channels, to adjust your dress bodice.

Press the short edges of the strip to the wrong side 1/4″, and position one short end just behind your desired bodice closure line, the other just in front of your side seams. Hem the upper edge of the facing strip flat to the inside of the dress, using a running stitch by hand. (Hand stitches show less on the outside, and are more flexible during use.)

Continue to stitch three 1/4″ channels along the facing, being sure to leave the exits on the short ends quite open.

(showing the finished interior casing when skirts are attached; click to embiggen.)

Narrow twill tape can be threaded through to use in your bodice adjustments. You can either choose to sew the tapes firmly into the side seams, or have them adjust individually by adding short, permanently stitched tapes to the side seams, with which each tape will be paired and secured. The tapes exit at center front, and are adjusted and tied inside the bodice before the bodice is fastened.

(from the outside, only a few running stitches show.)

Set your skirts to the expanded waistline, using gauging or whipped pleats.

In early pregnancy, or post-partum, the tapes can be snugged up comfortably, and the bodice will appear to be gathered-to-fit. There will be a slight bit of extra skirt bulk just in front, but it’s generally not noticed, and in any case, is normal for this particular mid-century dress technique. In later pregnancy, the tapes are loosened to accommodate The Bump; in late pregnancy, they may be left untied altogether. Bust measurement increases will pull the front of the bodice up just a bit, with a handy side-benefit of raising the waistline for the baby, as well!

Add gestational and nursing corsets, and you can comfortably wear this style through pregnancy and for months beyond. If you’ll be pregnant during the summer, utilize slightly V’d necklines, open sleeve styles, summer-weight fabrics, and half-high linings, to reduce the heat retention of your dress, as well.

And, just for something fun: if you’re in the Pacific Northwest this summer, stop by Oregon City and the End of the Oregon Trail Visitor’s Center, to see a great exhibit, “And Baby Makes Three: Motherhood and Maternity on the Oregon Trail” The exhibit is free to the public, and is open Thursdays through Mondays, 11-4.

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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