The Maternity Wardrobe: Curating From Your Closet, Working With What You Have And When To “Go Maternity”

So…you’re pregnant, and facing a nine-month span of OMG INCUBATING A SMALL HUMAN INSIDE YOURSELF.

You might be relieved, freaked out, really and extremely freaked out, happy, worried, surprised, awful, scared. Whatever you feel = totally valid. Pregnancy is one of those conditions in life that runs the gamut in terms of emotions. And I’m of the mind that people shouldn’t be emotional fascists and tell women how they should feel. (There’s something about motherhood and pregnancy that brings out the emotional fascist in some people sometimes!) Feel your feels! Let it out! Don’t stop ’til you’ve had enough!

This post, instead, is for the moment when you eventually get around to wondering: what the heck am I going to wear? This is what I wished I had read when I was pregnant and dealing with a maternity wardrobe. I wasn’t just looking for sartorial advice, I suppose — and I also didn’t want a million ‘one size fits all’ recommendations for items of clothes I’d never wear even when I wasn’t pregnant. (Plunging v-neck tunic tops? Not for me.) Beyond brass-tacks practical advice, I was looking for reassurance that I could still feel like myself, even as I was changing rapidly in a physical manner.

So my advice is aimed towards this end — it’s basically trying to figure out how little you can get away with buying new (so you can save money to spend on way cuter things, like adorabomb baby blankets!) and still accommodate your innate style. Ideally, a maternity wardrobe honors your present, helps you adjust to the crazy future ahead of you but still helps you feel like who you are at your core. And, oh yeah, keeps you feeling cute and comfortable during a crazy, strange, sometimes even wondrous physical and emotional odyssey.

My Own Story

I admit, I was a little shell-shocked when I was first pregnant, so a systematic rethink of my wardrobe to accommodate my condition was a bit beyond my powers. I found out in June, just as it was getting hot. For a month, I basically wore a loose Derek Lam dress and a few stretchy American Apparel ones every other day for a few weeks because I just felt fat and hot and didn’t know what to do. (It was summertime — not a fun time to feel nauseous and bloated, although there’s never a better time to feel those things, I guess.) I was freaking about a lot of things: health insurance, finances, my future plans, and OMG INCUBATING AND THEN RAISING A SMALL HUMAN.

Eventually, I got my bearings (and got bigger) and dealt with the prosaic dilemma of what to wear. I was lucky in some ways — I carried practically all my weight in my belly. I didn’t even get bigger breasts! (That didn’t come until nursing, which is a journey in and of itself, and likely the subject for a later post.) I was also lucky in that my pre-existing wardrobe generally emphasized looser, drape-y swing and trapeze tops with tighter bottoms like skinny jeans and leggings — so plenty of my tops were maternity-friendly already. As a result, I got away with buying just two pairs of H&M maternity skinny jeans in dark rinse denim and grey at around month 6 or 7.

(Mini-review: the H&M maternity jeans were utterly brilliant. I wore them ALL THE TIME, and constant washing never made them stretch out or lose their shape. They were comfy, didn’t chafe and expanded nicely with my changing shape. And I felt cool and awesome and very much myself — something I totally appreciated as my body spun out of control at times. If you are looking for a well-made, non-cheapo but not exorbitantly priced fashion jean for pregnancy, I liked these a lot.)

And that was pretty much it. I also got lucky with weather — the early part of my pregnancy was in summer, when I wear loose dresses a lot already. My last trimester was in the dead of winter, and at that point, I just was so over being pregnant that I just wore warm leggings or sweatpants, Uggs and the loose sweaters and oversized hooded sweatshirts I already had. Seriously, at the end I really looked like a stressed-out, under-slept college student at the end of finals week — only with a giant, humongous marching drum strapped to my front.

But that’s me. Your story will likely be different because bodies are different, seasons are different and nothing is predictable. And that’s the main difficulty: pregnancy is so unpredictable in general. You just don’t know where you will gain weight. Sometimes you gain in the upper arms or your back broadens or your hips go awry. Sometimes your face widens; sometimes it doesn’t. Pregnancy is mind-blowing, sometimes undignified, unruly, out of control and sometimes awesome and incredible. Beyond your body, any number of things can happen: you might have to go through some bed rest, for example, shifting a once-active lifestyle to a standstill. Get pregnant, and you’re sometimes signing up for 9 months of continual WTF.

Start With Where You Are: What’s Already In Your Closet

So really, my first word of advice to an expectant mama is: throw out the idea of a ‘wardrobe’ and all the orderly precision it implies. Taking a logical, pragmatic, systematic approach to a maternity wardrobe can be an exercise in folly and frustration if you are perfectionistic about it. There’s no 10-30 items “YOU JUST NEED!” shopping list you can tick off and be done with — unlike those helpful little lists you get when you create your baby registry.

The truth is that you’re going to have to improvise, depending on what you already have, how your body is shifting, what weather and lifestyle you deal with, etc. If there’s ever a time to revel in shopping continually, it’s now — because your body might be fundamentally changing every few weeks.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily start with buying: if you’re like most people I know, your budget is limited and you might be daunted by the idea of how much you’re spending on a new baby if this is the first show at the rodeo, so to speak. (I remember freaking out over the cost of a car seat!) It’s a good idea to work first from your existing wardrobe — which ideally is full of clothes you love and make you feel fully yourself.

I’d suggest periodically trying on clothes for the upcoming season at the beginning of a trimester — and if something doesn’t fit, store it away out of sight. If you want to be all Marie Kondo about it, thank them for making you feel amazing and beautiful and maybe you’ll see them in about a year or so. But otherwise, store them in a place you won’t see — you don’t want to remind yourself of what you can’t wear or fit into anymore. (This is the part where we ‘honor our present’!)

I know that when I was pregnant, I’d occasionally catch a glimpse of some beloved item I just couldn’t wear anymore and feel that pang of sadness. Ladies, at this point in life, let’s not feel pangs of anything that we don’t need to. Just put the non-fitting items away and save yourself buckets of wistfulness!

Then, Make Up A Shopping List: Look At What You Have — And What You Need

After you’ve stashed away the clothes that no longer work for you, take a look at what’s left that you can fit into for the next season. Figure out what you have and feel good about wearing that you already own.

(Note: don’t try to figure out items too far ahead in the future, since you never know what your body is going to do and buying too far ahead in advance might leave you with a lot of unworn clothing. “Next few months” really means for the upcoming season, or next 2-3 months.)

Basically you’ll likely end up pulling these kind of pieces, since they’re often versatile enough to work during pregnancy and after:

+ Blazers, jackets, cardigans: “completer” pieces

+ Jersey or stretchy-knit pieces like skirts, tops, some dresses

+ Anything empire waist, usually dresses and tops, that also is long enough to cover your belly

+ Dresses without seams that can be belted: tent or trapeze ones, for example

+ Tunics, flow-y blouses in general, or anything roomy and long

+ Accessories and shoes

+ Anything long and reasonably accommodating in the waist and/or hips, like long boyfriend t-shirts

Once you know what you have to work with, you figure out what you need. This is where the list-building begins — and also where you get analytical and left-brained, because you basically need to inventory what you have, perhaps evaluate what silhouette or style you gravitate towards, what season you’re headed into — and then figure out your personal gaps.

For example: As I mentioned, I already had lots long, looser blouses, as well as stretchy sweater dresses and swingy loose dresses as well. However, I grew out of my skinny jeans. (I got by for awhile by fastening the top button of them with a hair elastic — I know, so sophisticated, right? — but that was pretty unsustainable once the baby bean turned into a baby marching drum.) Since I wear them all the time, I was willing to buy maternity versions of them — something I had no regrets about. I had a friend who wore tons of long knit skirts, leggings and drape-y wraps and cardigans with her ‘off-duty Rick Owens ballerina’ look — and she ended up needing to buy longer tops to cover her belly. Another friend works a corporate job as an exec, and invested in special work pants and skirts throughout her pregnancy that worked with her existing blazers…and then she bought a new blazer at the very end because the last month and a half, her boobs just grew like crazy. Your ‘gaps’ are dependent on your personal style and life formula, so your list will be very specific to your lifestyle and existing wardrobe.

Figure out YOUR staples — the items you reach for your closet again and again, whether out of necessity (officewear!) or inclination (skinny jeans!) and don’t be afraid to buy maternity versions of them if you need. If they’re truly staples, you’ll likely wear the heck out of them (and through the post-partum period as well) and get your entire value out of them.

Please Just Give Me A Frickin’ List

If you’re looking for basic rules or guidelines in making a list and checking it twice, though, here it is. This is like wardrobe calculus — and again, it comes with the proviso that these are all just suggestions. The brass-tacks part of this brings out my precise, authoritative, slightly bossy Virgo rising, but honestly, these are really just starting points. It’s fashion, not chemistry! More art, less science!

My first hint, though: don’t try to wardrobe your entire pregnancy. Break it down into trimesters and/or season. Then assemble a capsule wardrobe for each season and/or trimester. For each trimester or season, you’re pulling together 20-40-something items, sourced from your existing wardrobe as well as new purchases, that will mix and match for the upcoming occasion or season.

Start with your bottoms first. Unless you are a dress person, you get more mileage out of bottoms, which are often foundational or investment pieces in a wardrobe. If you’re looking for a concrete number, a good seasonal capsule wardrobe has 4-6 bottoms — many of which can work for the next season, of course. Your percentage of skirts vs. pants vs. jeans vs. leggings will vary — maybe look at your life proportion to help figure that out, as well as the season. If you’re very active/casual and it’s summer, for instance, you may choose leggings or shorts. But if you’re more casual-dressy and it’s summer, you may do more fun skirts — or just forgo some pants altogether and opt to spend on dresses.

Bottoms in general are a category, though, where I think it’s worth “going maternity” — simply because pants are complicated and it’s worth having something specially designed for pregnancy. People tend to repeat bottoms and use them as a foundation more than tops (which can be bought simply bigger during pregnancy.) I find that you’ll get your money’s worth if you buy pregnancy bottoms.

At the very least, I do recommend going maternity with at least one pair of jeans — mostly because most people wear jeans, so they’re a staple and anchor for many.

Not everyone can live in jeans, though. I know a few of my officebound ladies struggled to find maternity pants that were work-friendly, so for these shoppers, here’s a handy-dandy palette of choices:

Then, tops. One other number: I’ve also read and heard that a good basic ratio of tops to bottoms is 2 or 3-to-1…so if you have about 6 bottoms, 12-18 different tops will do you well at a minimum. But again, adapt and adjust as you need. It’s your body and your pregnancy and your clothes! This is a difficult category to generalize, since everyone has different tastes, comfort levels and changing bodies. But if I may try, you want to pay attention to the length of tops and the bustlines. If you’re buying new clothes, you might be able to get away with simply buying bigger and longer, rather than buying specialty maternity clothes. Look for swing or trapeze tops that have some length on them (Old Navy’s tops tend to be longer in length, for example) or tunic-y tops. If you’re cool with clingier shapes, tanks and t-shirts are easy to buy a few sizes bigger or longer — and even if you’re not, they make a nice base layer for ‘completers,’ which I’ll start in on now…

Figure out your ‘completers.’ A completer is what makes your wardrobe truly individualistic, adding either funk or polish or pizzazz or sophistication — whatever your sartorial spice is. They can be cardigans, wraps, blazers, jackets, big flannel shirts — they often can work from season to season, depending on the material.

Again, if you want a number, 4-6 sounds pretty good to me — 1 go-to completer piece for each bottom. This is totally where your style and season dictates: I am generally not a huge cardigan person, for instance, but I do love a good jacket or blazer. A horseback riding friend’s maternity go-to was a flannel shirt thrown over a tank and either jeans or a long skirt with Frye boots — and she looked awesome while pregnant.

Generally, softer completers like cardigans and little wraps can be bought a size bigger or longer, but more structured ones might work best bought specifically maternity. But this is another tricky category…you often just have to try things on, which can be sometimes a demoralizing experience as a pregnant person. A few professional ladies I knew invested in one or two maternity blazers for office wear and then had them altered when they lost weight post-baby. A few other ladies I know who expanded in the bust and that tricky area just under the armpit bought bigger denim or (faux) leather jackets and layered them over flow-y blouses and dresses, and they looked great. It’s all about improvising, really.

Try out the ‘rule of three’. This is real fashion nerd stuff right here! My basic rule (for not just maternity, but my regular wardrobe) is to have ‘trios’ of similar items but with different modes: dressy/formal, casual, and fun. For instance, I like sweatshirts, so I have a funky sweatshirt, a casual one for bumming around and for working out, and a legit ‘fancy’ one that’s cut just slightly different enough to work as a ‘going-out’ top in cooler weather. In terms of bottoms, I had a trio of jeans: a dark rinse skinny pair of maternity jeans that were touch more dressier, a grey pair in the same cut that were funkier and a bootleg pair from my existing wardrobe that were casual and bohemian and low-rise enough to work underneath my belly for awhile. And then I had three pairs of leggings I wore that I basically destroyed. (Casual, casual, casual!) Those were my 3 bottoms right there for fall and winter during my pregnancy — outside of the two pairs of sweatpants I lived in my last 3 weeks! (At that point I was pretty much “Forget fashion!”)

Of course, you can adjust this to fit your lifestyle and temperament: a more office-oriented lifestyle might need ‘dressy, dressy, casual.’ In that case, you might opt for ‘formal, formal, casual’ in terms of bottoms. You might have 2 sets for summer: two pairs of work pants and then a pair of shorts in one set, then two work skirts and then a ‘fun’ skirt in another. On the other end, if you are all-casual tomboy all the time, just have a trio of jeans and a trio of leggings and/or shorts — or another trio of jeans! — and call it a day.

And a word about dresses: my theory is there are dress people and non-dress people. If you’re a dress person, a trio of dresses will work well for you: again, think formal, casual and fun, in whatever proportion you need. If you’re not a dress person type, add another trio of tops to your collection perhaps. Basically, throw in another trio of ‘spiciness’ if you want, in whatever item — top, bottoms, workout clothes, dresses — make you happy. Heck, if you are a total dress person, fill your capsule for the season with 40+ swing, tent or trapeze dresses that work with your belly! And go on with your swishy self!

Accessories are the best. The most fun and self-expressive part of dressing while you’re pregnant will likely be accessories. Seriously, nothing will bring you more sartorial joy than accessories during your maternity wardrobe months. You likely already have lots of great accessories in your closet that you love, and the good news is that you won’t outgrow many of them as your body changes. (Shoes are tricky, though — some people go up in size, thanks to water retention in their feet!)

So take this time to give yourself a full-on permission slip to enjoy yourself: get some jewelry, scarves, a cool bag, whatever makes you feel groovy and cool. You want to have fun with style, even as your body might be going bananas (along with your emotions and hormones!) And any pregnant mama-to-be genuinely deserves to be good to herself in many ways — and that includes clothes.

The Beauty of Temporary

Hopefully, this will help any mamas-to-be when it comes to building and curating a maternity wardrobe. My practical intent was to help focus a lens on your existing inventory of clothes with an eye towards this crazy new bodily and emotional reality, shift that lens towards the life you’re leading — and figure out what you need to bridge the gap between the two.

Sometimes that gap is so bewildering that it’s hard to know how to approach it. Being pregnant is sometimes overwhelming and tiring, and sometimes clothes are the last thing on your mind. Your body is drastically and often rapidly changing, and it’s exciting and sometimes frightening all at once. And that’s okay.

But I did find maternity wardrobe-ing a nice diversion and even a fun challenge eventually: a way to connect with myself and think about who I was becoming, and feel comfortable, presentable and as much of myself at the same time. There’s something about clothes and style that encapsulates all dimensions of a time and a self: past, present, future, dreams, reality. And there probably are few other times in your life when every dimension will be as intensely alive and visceral all at once. We don’t fixate on clothes because we’re shallow, but because clothes are time made real in some strange, ineffable way. And at no time is that more true than during and after pregnancy and birth.

I was reminded of all this when I recently packed away my maternity jeans. I happily outgrew them a bit back, but they remained in my closet for some time, stashed away in the back like some weird secret. But I took them out finally, and I was flooded with memories: going to H&M with my sweetheart when I bought them, trying them on and feeling a small whoosh of ‘I AM ME AGAIN!’ in the dressing room, wearing them on the ‘date nights’ I didn’t realize at the time would be the last I would have for awhile. Each time I wore them, I felt that I had chosen wisely: I honored myself, my body and my life. Most of all, though, I was thankful: grateful that they kept me comfortable and warm, and saw me through a tumultuous, exciting time of my life that was utterly unique and singular.

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