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Maternity fashion for the not pregnant

I first noticed the trend while shopping with my mother-in-law. She walked out of the dressing room of a chain-retailer, the sort of place that is neither at the cutting edge nor tail-end of fashion, wearing a flutter-sleeve, trapeze top with a pleated twist neck – a highlight of the store’s new spring line. I should interject here, for the sake of accuracy and familial harmony, that my mother-in-law is a stylish and exceedingly trim woman, in better physical shape than most of my thirty-something friends.

“What do you think?” she asked.

I hesitated. She looked about three months pregnant.

“It’s not your color,” I said, and we moved on to the jeans department.

This was not an isolated incident. Everywhere I looked, the stores were filling up with bubble dresses, blouses with pleated tops, empire waists and draped bodices. In just a couple seasons, styles had taken a 180-degree turn from the tight and hip-hugging to the loose and fluid. As best I could tell, a shift this big hadn’t taken place since the second decade of the last century. It was then that the French designer Paul Poiret introduced the sheath and sack dress. Abandoning the tightly upholstered, hourglass shape of nineteenth-century gowns for a flowing, lithe, softer silhouette, he fed the fad for Orientalism and had women of the upper-classes dressing up in the pantaloons of harem girls and geisha-inspired kimonos. This all took place, however, long before maternity clothes came along and co-opted billowing cuts for their effectiveness at hiding a pregnant belly.

I began to wonder if I was the only one aware of this fact, if the rest of the world was experiencing a bout of maternity-fashion amnesia. How could I be the only one who noticed how the svelte looked questionably maternal in these styles, the curvy and full-figured, positively preggers? When I became pregnant myself, not long after the incident with my mother-in-law, everyone’s clothes looked so damn big, I half expected maternity stores to be featuring extra-large judicial robes and tent-sized ponchos. What I found came as a total surprise.

I’d survived a queasy first trimester of buttered saltine crackers, Wonder Bread and sugar cookies – worshiping daily at my newfound altar of carbohydrates – and now, plump and swollen, I was faced with the reality that – unlike the new floppy fashions my non-pregnant friends were buying – maternity styles seemed all about tight-fitting, belly-bearing pieces. There were sundresses that accentuated my bust; clinging, super-low-rise slacks bordering on the obscene; tube dresses so tight they might as well have been printed with big red arrows pointing toward my bulge. I wandered back to my old-stand-by stores, a bit bewildered, and purchased several tunics, some stretch leggings, a dress with an empire waist. I wore one of them the next day to work, and of course, it was this day that my co-workers looked me over and declared, “Wow, you really are pregnant.” A friend went on to say, “I saw that shirt. I wanted to get it, but I thought it made me look, you know . . .”

A salesgirl wandered our way. “Aren’t those adorable?” she asked. “We just got them in.”

My friend and I looked at each other. “Don’t you think we look kind of pregnant in them?” I asked. The salesgirl stepped back to get a better view. She tensed her brow and seemed to give the matter careful consideration.

“Not at all,” she concluded. “This new style is very delicate and sweet. Everyone just wants to look like a girl this season.”

A ripe, lactating girl, I thought.

Utterly nonplused, I decided to see what a buyer at a Chicago maternity boutique had to say. While she couldn’t shed much light on the ballooning of women’s fashion, her take on the maternity issue was that pregnant women didn’t want to feel like big cows anymore; they didn’t want to feel the way their mothers must have felt in all those terrible sailor dresses. Instead, they wanted to wear clothes that made them feel hot, fit, sexy and irresistible. Interesting, I thought: definitely not the adjectives I would have used to describe my mood as my hormones skyrocketed

“Everyone just wants to look like a girl this season.”

A ripe, lactating girl, I thought.

I do think she was onto something, however, with her “these aren’t your mother’s maternity clothes” remark. Like most things, fashion trends, both women’s fashion and maternity fashion, seems to operate on a pendulum; in our constant quest to get away from what’s familiar, we run head-on into fads that are new but counterintuitive. The trend in this case may not mean much to non-pregnant women wearing maternity-ish clothes. At worst, they’ll face some embarrassing encounters with clueless friends. What’s so frustrating about it for pregnant women is that while most of us wouldn’t mind a brief reprieve from body-obsession and unflattering styles, a time-out from the suffocating sense of always being on display, pregnancy now only seems to offer a new variation on the same old theme. Pregnant women today find themselves facing a new kind of competitiveness, not who has the flattest abs or the thinnest thighs, but whose bulge looks the cutest in a skin-tight mini-tee with “knocked up” written across it.

It seems a shame that in our uncritical embrace of the unfamiliar, women are presented with fewer and fewer fashion options that complement rather than contradict the shape and state in which they find themselves. But maybe women today aren’t so different from the ladies Poiret decked in pantaloons and kimonos. Maybe the urge behind all fashion is the desire for costume; the desire to play and to pretend the body beneath the clothes is something new, constantly re-made, something slightly less familiar than the body, pregnant or not, we know and (sometimes) love.

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