JHere is a stage of pregnancy when many women have to start thinking about changing their clothes for maternity clothes. Let’s be honest, the choices aren’t too inspiring and women are often expected to give up their sense of style in favor of comfort. Not singer Rihanna, however, whose refreshing take on maternity fashion has rocked the world.
Since announcing in January 2022 that she was expecting her first child, she eschewed the stretchy pants and tent dresses of traditional maternity wear. Instead, she used fashion to embrace, flaunt and celebrate her changing body. She did not cover her bump but showed it in belly exposing clothes and form-fitting clothes.
From crop tops to low-rise jeans to the unlining of a Dior cocktail dress to transform it into belly party outfit Rihanna has radicalized the fashion of motherhood and the way a pregnant woman’s body should be perceived.
From corsets to baggy sweatshirts, women’s sizes have always been heavily scrutinized by society, and never more so than during pregnancy.
Often women’s maternity clothes do their best to conceal and accommodate pregnancy. Today, advice to mothers-to-be can relate to the techniques of disguise pregnancy or how to get the most out of pretty boring options.
Society has defined pregnancy as a liminal moment for women, a moment of conversion from sexually attractive femininity to matronly motherhood. Fashion is central to how young women construct their identities, but maternity fashion arguably lacks creativity. With their drab designs that adapt to a growing body rather than celebrate it, maternity clothes rob women of quirkiness, style and individuality, and confine them instead to the role of mother. Be a sexy mothernot to mention a sexy pregnant woman like Rihanna, challenges this binary status of femininity.
The moral arbiters of history, the Victorians, are to blame for this conservative anxiety around the status of women’s bodies. Victorian moral values confined women to the servant and framed their worth around their piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.
These Christian moral standards meant that even modes of pregnancy were euphemistically named, announced as for the young matron or for the young bride. In a Puritan culture where sex was presented as something women endured to become mothers, pregnancy was an uncomfortable reminder of the sin necessary to have children. Perceived as so inappropriate, pregnancy wasn’t even directly referenced in the medical books offering advice to pregnant women, instead a multitude of euphemisms were again employed.
However, for many mothers, the shocking infant mortality rate and the likelihood of miscarriage meant that pregnancy was often more feared than celebrated in its early stages. This anxiety meant that pregnant women could lose their freedom and power over their bodies once their pregnancy became widely known. Once pregnancy was visually evident, it could mean a mother could lose her job, be excluded from social events and confined to her home. So concealing a pregnancy meant maintaining independence.
This 19th century conservatism still influences expectations for maternity wear today.
Celebrate the bump
Rihanna’s sweeping denunciation of mainstream maternity fashion puts her bump center stage. Critics have called his choices indecent and nakedwith its belly often fully exposed, or peek under fringes or sheer fabrics.
Rihanna’s choices celebrate the bodily realities of pregnancy. Like she told Vogue:
My body is doing amazing things right now, and I won’t be ashamed of it. This time should be festive. Because why should you hide your pregnancy?
A little like Beyoncé during her pregnancy in 2017both women position themselves as modern-day fertility goddesses, whose bodies are to be revered and not hidden.
But you might be surprised to learn that Rihanna’s bump-centric styles were equally popular among Tudors and Georgians.
Before the 19th century, the pregnancy was celebrated and highlighted in the portrait and through the modes designed around the pregnant woman’s body. From the 1580s to about 1630, pregnancy portraits became increasingly popular and could be considered a distinct subgenre of British portraiture. Marcus Gheeraerts woman in red, painted in 1620, is a magnificent example of this trend. Rather than being concealed, the impending arrival of an aristocratic heir was played and celebrated on canvas and by fashion.
Perhaps most fabulous was a 1793 fashion of wearing a fake bump under your dress, known as the belly pad. Although the purpose of the belly pack has been disputed, commentators at the time referred to it as a pregnancy mimic.
In April 1793, a journalist from The sun reported newspaper that standing in a store of one of my acquaintances, a distinguished young lady came in and asked for a Pad. The man asked her how tall: She replied, about six months. Women throughout history have celebrated the power of the bump.
There’s something rather joyful about Rihanna’s radical pregnancy fashion choices. She shatters the misogynistic and absurd Victorian notions of female decency that society clings to. Rihanna’s maternity fashion isn’t just for pregnant women. Rihanna’s radical maternity fashion is a feminist act that we can all dress, flaunt and experiment with our bodies however we see fit, no matter what they look like. Fashion is an important part of how we express our identities, and a transition into motherhood shouldn’t erase the person we were before. So if you’re pregnant, why not break out of the maternity clothes box and adopt something a little bolder, a little more you?
Serena Dyer is a lecturer in the history of design and material culture at De Montfort University. This article first appeared on The conversation
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