Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Question: Fabrics and Maternity Clothes

Today I'm answering two questions from readers and fellow writers. The first is from Sandra Ardoin.
I'm particularly interest in materials--what was available, when was it being used and for what clothing articles, details to better describe them in our stories. For instance, I don't think muslin was the muslin of today, so how did it differ?
 The simple answer is cotton. Cotton was king of fabrics for most of the 19th century. I won't go into a lot of detail here, but the history of cotton is fascinating and revolutionized fashion. But, cotton was not used in ball gowns. And there were no synthetic fabrics either. Other fabrics included wool gauze, silks of all kinds, taffeta, organdy, one called crepe de chine that I'm really not sure what it was, wool of varying gauges for colder climates and things like coats and capes, linen, and muslin. The ubiquitous calico was not a special kind of fabric. It merely referred to cotton fabric decorated with a small print. Just like today.

Muslin is the one most likely to be described wrong by a modern person. Back then muslin was a fine fabric, very soft and used for undergarments. During Napoleon's Empire, in France sheer muslin dresses worn over pink body tights was a very popular look for the merveilleuse. Today we'd call them fashionistas or divas. There are surviving examples of Egyptian muslin with a thread count of over 700. The fabric is so fine you can see through it. It was also very soft.

The second question is from Margaret Brownley.
I have a pregnant heroine.  How did women accommodate their unwieldy figures in the 1890s?
In short, about the same as today. Corsets were still worn because the corset was the equivalent of a bra today. Its purpose was support. Not restriction. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of 1890's maternity dresses, but I do have this one dated around 1859 in England.

The lines would basically be the same for the 1890's, though with a smaller skirt and different sleeves. I hope that helps.

On Monday, come back for a post where I'll share some fashion resources that in my opinion every historical writer should have on the shelf.


  1. Great information, Rachel! Thanks.

    From what I was reading recently, there were no "maternity" clothes. Women just let out the seams in their dresses. Unfortunately, I can't remember where I read that, so it would be best to double-check.

    1. You're welcome!

      I was very surprised when I ran across this maternity dress from the 1850's. If I remember correctly it's at the Victoria and Albert museum. I need to do a more in-depth post with this dress and point out all the things that make it different from other dresses of the period.

  2. Beautiful dress, Rachel! And great post:)