Curator's Choice: Karen Snowden on a stylish maternity dress in Scarborough

By Ben Miller | 11 April 2013

Curator's Choice: Karen Snowden, Head of Collections at Scarborough Museums Trust, talks about an 18th century maternity dress...

A close up photo of a white dress with red patterns on it from the 18th century
© Tony Bartholomew
“Costume is so important historically. It can tell us an awful lot about not just a period of time, but about the person who wore it.

Take this rare example of an 18th century maternity dress, for instance. It dates from around 1790, and is shaped for a woman in the later stages of pregnancy.

Its internal structure leads me to believe it was adapted from a polonaise dress – in which the overskirt of the gown was draped up to create a swathed effect at the back, revealing the underskirt at the front – from about 20 years earlier.

Fabric was expensive in those days, so things were recycled. Wealthier people would hand down unwanted garments to their servants, either for them to wear themselves, or to sell on – there was a thriving second-hand market even then.

And dresses, or bolts of fabric, might have been left to family members in someone’s will.

In the late 18th century, the very fashionable would wear printed cottons imported from India. But these were extremely expensive because of the distances they had to travel.

I would guess that the wearer of this dress wasn’t hugely wealthy: it’s not Indian cotton, but mimics those fabrics, and is block-printed – a process in which the sprigged pattern would be repeated on a block of wood, then printed with the colours added in layers. It’s probably linen.

On the other hand, it’s white, and nicely trimmed with lace at the sleeves, which suggests she was well off enough to have servants, and therefore didn’t have to engage in the day-to-day business of cleaning and so on – life was a dirty business back then, what with houses heated by coal and muddy streets. She may well have had access to a carriage.

The style is very relaxed: in the late 1700s, once the pregnancy bump was visible, women even as far down the social scale as the lower middle classes wouldn’t go out in society very much, so it was all about comfort.

They probably ended up spending an awful lot of time at home – women just accepted that they would probably have a lot of children.

There’s a lovely quote from the journal of Esther Edwards Burr – the mother of the third Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr – shortly after she had her second child in 1756.

She said: ‘When I had but one child my hands were tied, but now I am tied hand and foot. How I shall get along when I have got half a dozen, or ten children, I can’t devise.’

For reasons of modesty and comfort, the wearer of this dress would probably have also worn a tucker, which was a piece of muslin or lace worn around the neck.

It’s where the expression ‘best bib and tucker’ comes from. And in cold weather, they would have worn a woolen jacket – the sort of thing we might call a cardigan.

I think what’s really remarkable about this dress is its condition – you could wear it today and no-one would look twice.

We had it conserved some years ago by Jean Glover, who’s the eminent conservator.

The colours still really sing – it’s a wonderful, beautiful object.”

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