Sunday, January 6, 2019

DAY 16: You Know You've Wondered...Maternity Dresses in the Gilded Age

About a month ago, when I posted images and info on the underclothes of the Victorian world, one of the most frequent comments from women was: "How did those women breathe?" and "How could you ever be pregnant in a corset???"

pregnancy corset with adjustable nursing laces

pregnancy corset with adjustable sides

Victorians were so mortified by any mention of bodily functions--this is the world that regarded legs as a dirty word, preferring limbs--that the word pregnant was not truly in their vocabulary. A lady was "increasing," or she was "in the family way," or more euphemistically, "expecting to be indisposed this winter." These prevarications suggest that pregnant Gilded Age women were hidden away for nine months at a time, veiled to the world. But that, of course, is nonsense. A woman like Lord Randolph Churchill's mother, Frances Anne, Duchess of Marlborough, survived eleven pregnancies while serving as a leader of mid-Victorian Society; she did not spend a decade and a half swaddled in discreet draperies at Blenheim.

Only a lady's dressmaker and her personal maid were admitted to the privilege of knowing exactly how far along she was. And yes, I'm including her husband in the general cluelessness.

Gilded Age maternity made an effort to track fashion with a modicum of comfort. Here's a gown from House of Worth, dated 1879, when Jennie Churchill would have been pregnant with her second son, Jack, in Ireland. Note that from the rear, the viewer has no clue to the lady's condition. The front draping, however, is loosened to accommodate growth.

This photograph displays the internal construction of a simple day dress, with drawstrings at the waist that could be loosened as needed.

A prominent woman like Duchess Fanny--or Viscountess Consuelo Yznaga Mandeville, who carried twins through London's whirl in her twenties--would need maternity evening gowns. House of Worth obliged. 

This gown was described in Bonham's Auction House catalogue as a maternity wedding gown. One commentator was astounded--a Victorian woman could be pregnant on her wedding day? 

Jennie Churchill probably was. She married Lord Randolph April 15, 1874, and Winston was born November 30th.

This, however, is perhaps the saddest gown I've encountered among the visual archives of historic fashion collections. 

The maternity mourning gown. 
It's impossible to see this and not wonder: Did she lose her husband, while waiting to give birth? Or was it a sibling--a parent--another child? 

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.   

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