Bewitched by vintage maternity fashion
Apr 28, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
One of the reasons I adore vintage fashion is that there’s something for everyone during each season of life. Do you have a big day at the office ahead and need a boost of confidence? Nothing like a 1950s dress paired with some signature pearls. Jumping for joy because you get to brunch with your gal pals again? How about some 1970s palazzo pants with some cute heels? Fashion tells a story – your story. But on the surface it seems vintage fashion overlooks an important part of many women’s stories: motherhood. You see, for generations, while babies were seen as the little bundles of joy that they are, all the parts leading up to the birth were considered taboo. When the producer of “I Love Lucy” made the historic decision to weave Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy into the second season every possible measure was taken to avoid offending the public.
The script for the episode excluded the word pregnant in its entirety. A special council of a priest, rabbi, and minister consulted with the writers. Every decision was agonized, but once the episode aired in 1953 the television landscape would never be the same. Over 44 million viewers tuned in from coast to coast. Suddenly pregnancy edged its way into the spotlight and that meant vintage maternity fashion found its moment in the sun as well.
There was one lady who had laid the foundation for just this occasion: Lena Himmelstein. You may not instantly recognize the name, but you’ll know her legacy: Lane Bryant. Lena set foot in the United States in 1895. When she arrived as a teenager from Lithuania the Gilded Age was in full swing. The economy was booming, thanks to the transcontinental railroad. It was a time for extraordinary innovation, but also a time of great disparity. Lena arrived in New York, needle and thread in hand. She worked hard, toiling in crowded factory conditions. This experience was never far from her mind – even as she married the jeweler David Bryant.
Their first anniversary was celebrated with the birth of their son, but tragedy soon followed when David unexpectedly died. Lena, in the midst of her sadness, rallied all of her strength. She pawned her precious diamond earrings, bought her first sewing machine and set up shop in her home. Before her 30th birthday she was a widow, a mother, and a successful entrepreneur. A $300 loan allowed Lena to setup a bank account and take her business to the next level. She began crafting custom pieces for the ladies of New York. Already known for her expertise with delicate fabrics, her clients felt confident in asking for bolder creations. During an age when women had few rights, Lena’s salon must have been a safe haven. A rare, female-identified space amid a concrete jungle.
See how Lane Bryant fits into the timeline of maternity fashion here.
That welcoming environment inspired one of her clients to ask for a maternity look. Lena created a tea gown, but with a trick of engineering (an elastic band connected to the bodice), this design gave her client a style that was both comfortable and flattering. This one simple request launched Lena’s business into an entirely new direction. Just as pregnancy was an unspoken reality of life, maternity fashion was considered hush-hush. Not an obvious business model, but Lena would not be deterred. As a mother herself, she knew what women needed during this beautiful season of their lives.
In 1909 Lena married again, this time to a Lithuanian engineer named Albert Malsin. Albert’s enthusiasm and support for his wife’s business inspired Lena to focus on her designs. Soon she was branching out from maternity wear and into beautiful fashion for women who didn’t fit into the microscopic box of society’s expectations. As her clientele grew, Lena realized women nationwide needed these clothes just as much as the lovely ladies of New York. Inspired by this revelation, Albert helped develop the mail-order catalog side of the business. The company flourished and as the Jazz Age roared on, Lena was grossing millions of dollars a year. These years were marked by tremendous growth and joy. Albert and Lena were a perfect pair in business and love (they had three children of their own), but sadly he passed in 1923. Lena once again found herself a single, working mother. Once again she found her strength and carried on. When the time was right to step away from the day-to-day operations, she kept the company in the family, giving her son Raphael the reins in the late 1930s.
In addition to her advocating for the mothers of the world through fashion, Lena championed good pay and benefits for her female workforce. Those early days of struggling in sweatshops made Lena vow to create something new if given the chance. I think it’s quite poetic how Lena celebrated growth in every facet: from the joy of women becoming mothers to the happiness of women embarking on careers. However you celebrate Mother’s Day this year, I hope Lena’s amazing legacy inspires you to be courageous and cherish whatever season of life you’re in!