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15th CENTURY GOWNS

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Medieval Maternity Wear
Clothes for Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

It seems that expectant medieval women favoured loose 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. In the later medieval period, the gathered surcote still appears.
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.

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 appear to 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 formfitting gown which could be tightened afterwards. 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
Many paintings show the Virgin Mary in the act of breastfeeding 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 shows a gown with two buttons for easy breastfeeding.

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