Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Rare Maternity Ensemble, c1780-95

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Susan reporting,

A near-constant cycle of childbearing and nursing children was one of the realities of married life for most 18thc European and American women. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854), the heroine of my new book I, Eliza Hamilton, was typical. Over the course of her twenty-three-year marriage to Alexander Hamilton, she was pregnant nine times, miscarried once, and bore eight children. She was much more fortunate than many of her contemporaries; all the Hamilton children survived to adulthood. Her mother, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler (1734-1803) was sadly more typical: she bore fifteen children, seven of whom died as infants.

Yet very little 18thc maternity clothing survives. There are several reasons for this: utilitarian clothing is much more rare, simply because it was worn until it was worn out. It wouldn't have been set aside and preserved the way that, say, an elaborate dress created for an elite woman for a court appearance might have been. Everyday clothing was refashioned and cut apart, remade and reused until, literally, nothing remained.

Because textiles were expensive and valued, most women would not have owned garments that were designated exclusively as "maternity." Instead their ordinary clothing would simply be adapted to their changing figures. The drawstrings that formed the waistlines in petticoats (skirts) were let out. The front-closing bodices were usually held together by straight pins instead of buttons or other closures, and could easily be re-pinned to accommodate a changing figure. Triangular inserts called stomachers could be used to fill the widening space left in between, and adjustable lacings were another practical design feature. Other popular garments, like the t-shaped bedgowns, were sufficiently loose-fitting for pregnancy and nursing. The front-opening styles with deep necklines, in fashion for most of the 18thc, were also easily adapted for nursing mothers.

This rare three-piece ensemble from the collection of Colonial Williamsburg was likely designed by a woman (and her mantua-maker) for her own use before, during, and after pregnancy. Cut from a diamond-quilted white cotton bed quilt, the old quilt's edging pattern was cleverly aligned to form an undulating border design along the hem of the petticoat. The drawstring at the petticoat's waist could easily expand, and would have been worn above the "baby bump."

It's also likely that the fashionable mother-to-be wore the petticoat over a padded false bum for extra volume in the back of her skirts, and that she continued to wear her stays (corset) beneath an ensemble like this one. Most 18thc stays laced up the back, and the two sides were never intended to meet. During pregnancy, the lacing was simply widened to allow more space. As always, the goal in the 18thc was not to achieve a tiny waist through tight lacing (as in the 19thc), but to maintain an erect posture and to create a silhouette that featured a straight front and narrow back. I'm sure most pregnant women skipped their stays while at home, but there were probably others who welcomed the familiar support that their stays offered.

The jacket with its stylish back peplum and fringed trim closed with a zig-zagging cord at the center front. For non-pregnancy wear, upper right, the front edges were laced together to meet at the front, but as the woman's pregnancy progressed, the third piece of the ensemble, a sleeveless undervest, would have been worn beneath the jacket, lower right. The vest, middle left, was not only cut widely for a pregnant body, but also had a slit in the back like a man's waistcoat, adjustable with more lacing. The jacket's front lacings could have been widened, with the vest beneath filling in the now-open front. The layers would also provided welcome warmth - always a plus in drafty 18thc houses.

While there are no records or contemporary descriptions of how Eliza Hamilton dressed during her pregnancies, I imagine that she, too, wore adaptable garments such as these, and that's how I described them in I, Eliza Hamilton. I suspect I'm not the only one inspired by this ensemble, either. The costume that's worn by the pregnant Eliza (played by Philippa Soo, and shown bottom left with Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander) in the musical Hamilton looks so much like the Colonial Williamsburg ensemble that I have to think the show's designer Paul Tazewell was aware of it, too.

Many thanks to Neal Hurst, associate curator of costumes and textiles, Colonial Williamsburg, for his assistance with this post.

Above: Women's quilted maternity ensemble, c1780-1795, collection of Colonial Williamsburg.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.


Karen said...

Another "pregnancy robe" from the 1790s:

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Yes, I had that one in my "inspiration" file as well. :) It's a beauty - but probably belonged to a more affluent (or less practical) woman than the one who cut up an old quilt. Interesting how both dresses came with extra pieces to make them more adaptable to a changing figure. These are the only two examples I'm aware of. Wonder if there are any more lurking in other collections out there?

Lucy said...

One alternative to a corset, especially comfortable for the 18th century pregnant woman was "jumps." I've heard them described as unboned, or only partially boned, and styles may have varied to include both, but they were a popular sort of informal undergarment.

The other point.... It's interesting to notice that at one point, the "flat front" silhouette considered representative of the 18th century seems to have changed, though slightly. Portraits painted in the 1740s, particularly of young women in the early 1740s, show a delicately rounded, more natural outline with a hint of flexibility that escapes the sharply rigid lines of the 1730s. It's a change that most period film costumers seem to miss, which is too bad, because it's a charming look.

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