How the tie-waist skirt changed the game for pregnant people in the midcentury period.
Excerpted from Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick. Reprinted with permission from the MIT Press. © 2021. Follow Designing Motherhood on Instagram, or visit the website.
On Dec. 8, 1952, a little over a year after her television series debuted to audiences in the United States on the CBS network, the eponymous star of I Love Lucy opened the 10th episode of the show’s second season complaining of feeling a little “blah.” Standing by a mantelpiece in her TV home, Lucy (played by actress Lucille Ball) told her friend and neighbor Ethel that she was off to the doctor to figure out her unexplained fatigue, weight gain, and general malaise. Clever Ethel’s expression shifted almost immediately from concern to elation, and after a beat she exclaimed, “Lucy, you’re going to have a baby!”
In Lucy’s midcentury cultural moment, the adjective that properly described her state was conspicuously missing, for both on-screen and off-screen the script for those “in the family way” was carefully calibrated. The word pregnant was considered so indecent that the episode was titled “Lucy Is Enceinte,” purloining from the French to add a veneer of gentility. Had audiences reached immediately for their Merriam-Webster’s, they would have found that Lucy’s condition was being summed up en français by a word that denoted “the enclosing wall of a fortified place,” a perfect connection to that other public mother figure, Mary, and her virgin conception so often signified in early Christian visual art by a verdant, fecund walled garden.
Cue the tie-waist skirt, the design that played a crucial role in normalizing public pregnancy. It was a midcentury maternity game changer. Hugely popular between 1939, just after it was patented, and 1958, the year that stretchy Lycra fabric was invented, the tie-waist skirt became a seminal garment for its ability to address the concerns of polite society, where maternity clothes were meant to function as—in the words of a 1928 Vogue editorial—“miracles of concealment.”
With a large U-shape cut out at its top where the skirt met the waistband, the design had a drawstring flexibly encircling the growing belly, while a vertical tab connecting the skirt to one of a series of snaps on the waistband. As pregnancy progressed, the vertical tab could be let out and fastened to the next snap in the series, adjusting for fit while maintaining an even hemline. The tie around the waist, meanwhile, could be let out as the hips and rib circumference expanded. Combined with childlike accessories such as bows, tented tops (which hung down to hide the cutout at the top of the skirt), and Peter Pan collars, it was just subtle enough—a perfect panacea for the unutterable.
And this was the way Ball dressed, even as the enceinte storyline blossomed along with her bump. TV audiences (the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” was broadcast to an unprecedented audience of 44 million Americans) were mesmerized by the drama playing out on their screens. Lucy embodied the tension between her character, circumscribed by domesticity, and her real-life role as an expectant mother working (as an actress, no less) outside the home. While the stereotype of a mother-to-be’s home life was acted out, its public, popular aspect troubled traditional notions of propriety. After all, polite society still considered a burgeoning stomach a literal sign of sex, and an unflattering silhouette—something more safely kept behind closed doors.
The idea of having a pregnant actress portray a pregnant woman on television was considered so shocking that the show’s major sponsor, Philip Morris, at first suggested that Lucy hide her changing body behind tables and chairs. But Ball, Desi Arnaz (Lucy’s on-screen and off-screen husband), and the show’s producers rejected that idea, transforming what could have been the end of the series into a new arena for television audiences. Under the very same lens employed in other episodes—the day-to-day happenings of an all-American middle-class family—Lucy’s changing body, clothing, mood swings, cravings, and baby name choices made a formerly private experience a completely public one in front of an audience of millions, reflecting the particulars and changing power dynamics of family life amid the emerging baby boom.
Using clothing to hide pregnancy was an overwhelming social norm of the time, even if maternity and fashion have long been uneasy bedfellows. During “confinement,” as the Victorians termed pregnancy—as opposed to “temporary disability,” as the American working world describes it today—women were expected to conceal their growing abdomens within their homes and, if they left the house at all (as so many working-class women did), inside maternity corsets. In the United States, such corsets were advertised in newspapers and women’s publications well into the 1930s. Fashion editorials that specifically addressed pregnant readers emerged slowly in mainstream publications from 1900 onward and highlighted darted, pleated, and laced dresses that played down a pregnant woman’s changing shape. Invariably, the models who were featured, whether live or illustrated, showed little sign of being with child.
The young widow, mother, and New York dressmaker Lena Himmelstein Bryant Malsin was at the forefront of the gradual shift toward supplying pregnant people—and society at large—with less constraining maternity options. Her turn-of-the-century experiments laid the groundwork for the emergence of the tie-waist skirt a few decades later. Bryant’s “No. 5” maternity gown—borne from a client’s request to create a garment that could accommodate her pregnancy—is an example of an early commercial ready-to-wear maternity dress. It helped launch a company that, by 1910, was turning over $50,000 in annual sales and advertising in a range of newspapers and magazines, including Vogue. Cannily, Bryant recognized that, whether pregnant or not, women’s bodies fluctuate in form, and thus she marketed garments with adjustable waistbands to women of all shapes and sizes, connecting the history of maternity wear with non-sample-size fashion.
The manufacture and retail of ready-to-wear clothing was becoming established in both factories and department stores in the early 20th century, and maternity wear rode the wave. By the 1930s, high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue stocked maternity fashions, and Bonwit Teller had an “Anticipation Shop.” Women wanted something stylish, whether for work or leisure, and retailers responded, offering their own adjustable maternity garments that mimicked contemporary fashions, aped a nonpregnant silhouette, and tried (often unsuccessfully) to conceal the pregnant body. Most incorporated buttons, pleats, and ties or, worse, slits, hooks, grommets, and uncomfortable steel bands in an attempt to hide the bump beneath. Still, as the belly expanded, the hem of the skirt would rise up—an annoyance that only got worse as skirt lengths shortened.
Then in 1937 a young engineer, Elsie Frankfurt, having decided that her pregnant sister looked like a “beach ball in an unmade bed,” created a novel design. Using one of her sister’s suits as a prototype, she cut out a window in the front of the skirt and voilà!—the tie-waist skirt was born. Frankfurt’s simple yet innovative design enabled the skirt to stay in place around the hips and against the thighs even as the belly expanded through the window, hidden underneath a tented top. Working along with the growing figure, the design was comfortable yet fashionable and enabled the wearer to step out without any obligation to constrict, radically obscure, or disfigure her changing shape. Each tie-waist skirt would stay cylindrical, maintain a level hemline, and could be paired with an overhanging smock or suit jacket with narrowly and delicately cut shoulders, fine materials, and distracting details like collars, bows, cuffs, and buttons to complete the look.
The Frankfurt sisters went into business, marketing Elsie’s design to the pregnant masses. They called their line Page Boy, the name driven home by the cute baby-as-birth-announcer holding a horn on their garment tag. In 1938, they opened their first boutique, next door to an obstetrician’s office in Dallas. By the time I Love Lucy’s first episode aired, Page Boy had become the single most successful full-line maternity manufacturer in the U.S., outfitting everyone from housewives to Hollywood actresses. Although pregnancy remained a “condition” for midcentury Americans, the sheer number of pregnancies during the baby boom made women’s reproductive capacities more visible than ever before. In 1954, just after Lucy introduced Ricky Ricardo Jr. to television audiences, there were well over 4 million births annually in the United States, and the demand for fashionable maternity wear was growing.
A front-page New York Times article of 1956 called maternity wear “big business,” noting that prospective families were spending upward of $200 million a year in the sector. As the Times spun it, “the expectant mother, desirous of looking her best at a most important time of her life, is more liberal in spending money for her wardrobe.” Page Boy’s advertisements seemed to suggest that pregnancy itself was a kind of metamorphosis that, if dressed properly for, could wall in the more out-of-control and future-oriented anxieties of pregnancy, trading all that was unruly and ugly for something more stylish. A woman’s experience could be tasteful and modern with clothes made for a “pretty pregnancy” and “smart, young mothers to be.” Pregnancy was sold as another event or life stage—cocktail-party guest, prom queen, bride, expert cook—for which women could buy a costume and play the part.
With its popularity peaking right in the middle of the 20th century, the tie-waist skirt—and the well-dressed pregnant woman it represented—was a midway marker between the hyper-concealed pregnant body, bound in a maternity corset, and the hyper-revealed pregnant body, exemplified by Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of a seven-months-pregnant Demi Moore, taken for the August 1991 cover of Vanity Fair. In many ways, the tie-waist skirt transformed what it meant to be pregnant, shifting its perception from “trying” and shameful to public and empowered—although always through the lens of design consumerism, in this case by augmenting one’s wardrobe choices. The skirt’s scooped-out opening for the expanding abdomen remained unseen to all but the wearer, but it managed to reframe public pregnancy. For Lucille Ball and so many others of the time, dressing in this humble masterpiece of design changed the game. The tie-waist skirt helped to cement Ball’s capital, cachet, and celebrity and marked a decisive step in the evolution toward liberating generations of pregnant people to come.
In the new millennium, maternity wear has experienced mixed fortunes. Even as fashion choices have widened, dedicated maternity retailers like Destination Maternity have seen their profit margins tumble over the past decade, and fast-fashion brands like ASOS and H&M now dominate the market. Maternity is also absent from fashion design education and other public stages, including perennially popular fashion exhibitions. Catering to bodies that fall outside of restrictive standard sizing—whether pregnant, fat, disabled, you name it—has rarely been the major focus of apparel design courses. Instead, cheap garments designed for deliberate obsolescence have allowed a cross section of pregnant women simply to buy a few sizes larger as their bodies change through the trimesters, and then to discard after use.
This explains in part why no contemporary high-fashion houses produce maternity wear, even as they relish the inherent drama of the maternal form and send pregnant models down their catwalks. (The pregnant model and actress Jourdan Dunn was an early pioneer in Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer 2010 show; Eckhaus Latta sent a pregnant model down the catwalk for its spring/summer 2018 show; and model Slick Woods even walked for Savage x Fenty while in labor in fall/winter 2018, going straight from the catwalk to the hospital to deliver.)
In the realm of high fashion, designers of different genders, but often working at fashion houses still overwhelmingly helmed by men, create rarified garments to be worn by atypically sized runway models. This big business public spectacle makes it into the permanent collections of storied museums, while fashion made for and by women with equal aesthetic merit for life stages like pregnancy is passed over because seasons trump trimesters. This is how culture is made.
Or perhaps, this is how culture was made—because the tides are changing, albeit slowly. When Hatch debuted in 2010, it was a rare outlier. Founded by former Wall Streeter Ariane Goldman, it is an upscale maternity-wear company that has grown every year since its founding. Hatch focuses not simply on clothing but on a concept store and an Instagram lifestyle that creates community through interviews with doulas, lactation experts, and pregnant people themselves. It’s an approach that California-based maternity wear company Storq, another recent entrant in the category, has—finally—made cool.
In the time of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s internet-shattering 2017 twin pregnancy announcement becoming the most “liked” Instagram photo of all time, and of Kim Kardashian’s globally known growing family, maternity fashion and the domestic preparations for baby and postpartum life have unquestionably become, once again, something to monetize. In the end, there’s no Ivy Park (Beyoncé’s sportswear line, named in part after her daughter) or Skims waist trainer (Kardashian’s shapewear, often worn postpartum) without the tie-waist skirt. They—and we all—can thank Lucy for that.