Looking for the perfect baby-shower gift for a certain well-dressed duchess? Consider Kay Goldman’s new book Dressing Modern Maternity, a history of the Page Boy maternity label. The groundbreaking Dallas clothing company was founded in 1938 by the three Frankfurt sisters, who were frustrated with the limited options in maternity wear. Combining stylish design with innovative business practices, Page Boy dominated the maternity market for five decades. Jackie Kennedy, one of the first victims of “celebrity bump watch,” was a Page Boy client; so was Elizabeth Taylor.
With two more paparazzi-friendly pregnancies–Cambridge (ongoing) and Kardashian (just ended)—putting maternity fashion in the global spotlight, it would seem that the timing of this release couldn’t be better. There’s just one problem. As Women’s Wear Daily recently pointed out, both Kim and Kate joined the growing ranks of mommies-to-be who spurn maternity clothes in favor of adapting their pre-pregnancy wardrobes or buying slightly larger versions of the kinds of clothes they usually wear—and, with minor alterations, could wear again after the baby arrives.
This isn’t just recessionista chic; for most of the history of fashion (and motherhood) expecting moms have managed just fine without maternity clothes. The relatively high cost of textiles in the pre-industrial age made it impractical to wear any article of clothing for just a few months; most pregnant women wore their everyday clothes, altered or made with extra material that could be let out or taken in with frequent childbearing. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that women began buying clothes expressly designed for two. Maternity clothing, then, is a fairly recent phenomenon, and a close reading of Dressing Modern Maternity suggests that its days are numbered.
It’s a common misconception that “in previous centuries women secluded themselves during pregnancy,” Goldman writes. Pregnancy was an open secret, and clothing neither hid nor advertised it. By the mid-19th century, however, changing cultural norms and medical opinions meant that visibly pregnant women often lived sheltered lives, if they could afford to; when they ventured out, patented “maternity corsets” kept bumps in check.
As women became more active outside the home in the early 20th century, the question of what to wear during pregnancy grew more urgent. One of the first firms to market maternity clothing was Lane Bryant, launched in 1904 by dressmaker Lena Bryant (the bank misspelled her name when she opened her business account, and it stuck). Bryant’s simple, inexpensive maternity dresses were adjustable, but did not solve the problem of uneven hemlines as the tummy expanded and fashion dictated ever shorter skirts.
In 1937, Dallas secretary Edna Frankfurt Ravkind was pregnant with her second child and unable to fit into her usual elegant wardrobe. With true sibling camaraderie, her younger sister, Elsie, told her she looked like "a beach ball in an unmade bed.” Three days later, Elsie—who had studied accounting and design at Southern Methodist University—had cut up one of Edna’s pre-pregnancy suits and remade it as a maternity ensemble in the slim silhouette of the day. Within months the sisters opened their first boutique, strategically situated on ground floor of the office building housing most of the OB-GYNs in Dallas. Little sister Louise, a fashion design major, joined the family firm in 1941. The company’s name came from its logo of a page boy blowing a trumpet to announce the birth of an heir to the throne.
The secret to Page Boy’s success was Elsie’s patented skirt design, which fit snugly around the hips without hiking up in front. A scooped-out window in the front accommodated the expanding abdomen; a long jacket covered the window. Ads boasted that Page Boy’s skirts were “not wrap-around.” For the first time, maternity clothes resembled the latest Paris fashions. As Elsie was fond of saying: “You can’t hide the fact that you’re expecting a child... but you can detract from it.”
Page Boy also benefited from auspicious timing. Although ready-to-wear had been around for a century, at first only menswear and utilitarian clothing were mass-produced; fashionable ladies’ garments were the last to succumb to the industrial machine. By 1930, however, most women were buying their clothes from department stores or mail-order catalogues rather than having them custom-made. The baby boom and postwar prosperity transformed consumer buying power and spending habits, making the idea of clothes that would last just a few months palatable.
In 1940, on a family vacation to Los Angeles, Edna impulsively rented a storefront on Wilshire Boulevard, deeming it the perfect spot for Page Boy’s second boutique. On opening day, actress Margaret Sullavan bought an entire maternity wardrobe. It was the start of a beautiful friendship between Page Boy and Hollywood. Celebrity clients included Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds, Princess Grace, and Mrs. Errol Flynn; Eva Marie Saint, nine months pregnant, accepted her 1955 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for On the Waterfront in a Page Boy-style skirt suit. Naturally, Page Boy used photos of these famous fans in promotional materials; true to their logo, the sisters were experts at blowing their own trumpet. By 1950, Page Boy’s “unexpected fashions for expectant ladies” were available in five boutiques and 350 department stores nationwide.