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Medieval Maternity Wear
Clothes for Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

It seems that expectant medieval women favoured clothing much like modern pregnant women- loose and comfortable. It is a subject not written about greatly, so in this area, we are left to examine period artwork for our information.

Clothes for pregnancy
At right, the 1440 painting from the right panel of a diptych by Rogier van der Weyden shows a heavily pregnant woman in a voluminous surcote covering her stomach.

Even though the depiction of a sword held by the subject marks this painting as clearly not a portrait, the reasonably accurate features leads us to believe that the clothing is not fantasy and is of the type that may have been worn by a pregnant woman. She appears to be wearing at least 2 more gowns underneath- a kirtle with fitted sleeves and another loose gown with hanging sleeves which were popular in the 15th century. It is quite likely that her kirtle is laced open to accomodate her expanding figure. Importantly, we cannot see this, as the kirtle is covered by further layers.

One of the most commonly depicted pregnancy scenes in medieval art is that of Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom are heavily with child. The paintings usually show the two women with a hand resting on the other woman's stomach.

Even in late iconography, both women usually wear a surcote which is large and gathers onto a neckband. This style can be seen in the early medieval period as an everyday dress before the fitted kirtle was introduced.

Often the loose over gown was worn with a tie knotted under the bust which seems to be omitted when the woman is pregnant.

In the 1445 painting The Visitation by van der Weyden, shown at left, we also note a red gown with side lacing which is expanded to accommodate a growing figure.

The close-up detail at right shows that the spiral side lacing. This would still permit a fairly form-fitting gown which could be tightened after a woman regained her usual body shape.

At a time where clothing was less disposable and more highly valued, a multipurpose gown like this would be a practical solution to the frequent pregnancies faced by medieval women.

Clothes for breastfeeding
Contemporary images of medieval women breastfeeding are next to impossible to find. Most noble women didn't breastfeed their own babies, prefering to utilise a wet nurse, and on the whole, no one was interested enough in the common woman breatsfeeding to bother painting her.

Fortunately for modern scholars and, we do have an extremely large number of paintings which show breastfeeding. Those of the Virgin Mary.

Some show the overdress pulled awkwardly to the side or downwards, but other mothers appear to favour front-lacing gowns for what must have been practical reasons.

An unusual image from the South Netherlands, Bruges or France (probably Valenciennes) dated between 1485 -1490, which shows a gown with two buttons for easy breastfeeding.

This is quite similar to other images of the Virgin with two fichets, that is, slits, high in her gown over the breasts which allow the breast to be utilised at a more natural position.

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