Story: Pregnancy, birth and baby care

Page 2. Pregnancy attitudes, rituals and clothing

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Attitudes to pregnancy

Among 19th-century Pākehā settlers pregnancy was often described as an illness. At the same time it was considered a natural state, because bearing children was seen as a woman’s primary role in life. This attitude persisted through most of the 20th century.

After conception, most men did not play an active role during their partner’s pregnancy. This changed in the second half of the 20th century as men began attending antenatal classes and were present at birth. As social attitudes changed, same-sex parents – co-mothers and co-fathers – became more visible.

Anticipating the baby

Pregnancy was a time to participate in woman-centred rituals. Making clothes or shopping were practical tasks and a way of visualising the baby. Handmade items like knitted garments or quilts were precious because of the time and effort spent making them. Baby showers were parties thrown for a pregnant woman to celebrate the baby and offer gifts.

Clothing and display

Clothing was used to conceal and distract attention from the bulge. The voluminous clothing of the 19th and early 20th centuries made it easy to conceal pregnancy.

Evil invention

A Department of Heath guidebook, The expectant mother, and baby’s first month, written by Frederic Truby King and published in the 1920s, discouraged the wearing of corsets and singled out bras for particular criticism: ‘The modern brassiere, the latest invention of the devil, is as injurious as the corset because it constricts the chest and flattens out the nipples.’1

As dress became more casual, pregnancy became more obvious. This did not mean that women were comfortable displaying their pregnancy. Though books advised loose, light clothing, women often wore heavy coats in public, even in summer. Some shied away from public appearances – in 1957, politician Hilda Ross recalled ‘the old, dark days when we didn’t go out for a walk except in the dark!’2

Visible pregnancy became more acceptable. Clothing was still baggy but did not try to hide the fact. By the 1990s many women proudly displayed their belly behind a light covering of stretchy material, though a 1996 study showed that pregnant women still avoided public places at times.

  1. Truby King, The expectant mother, and baby’s first month. Wellington: Dept of Health, 1925, pp. 14–15. Back
  2. Quoted in Sue Kedgley, Mum’s the word: the untold story of motherhood in New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 1996, p. 168. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Pregnancy, birth and baby care - Pregnancy attitudes, rituals and clothing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 August 2022)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 24 Oct 2018