Guardian Online, January 2016, Is 'maternity wear' becoming a thing of the past in fashion?

Are you up the duff? Do you speak emoji? If so, good news: in June, the UK’s fastest growing language is to launch a pregnant woman icon, making it even easier to tell loved ones about life-changing news in a thoroughly impersonal manner. But while the view from our iPhones will be more pregnancy-inclusive than ever in 2016, the outlook in maternity fashion remains complicated.

As anyone pregnant will tell you, finding decent maternity wear is a challenge. Specialist brands are expensive and often veer towards the Kate Middleton engagement-shoot look, a wrap dress too far for many. High street ranges tend to be limited, hidden away or only available online (Topshop’s maternity selection in London’s Oxford Circus branch is a notable exception). Meanwhile, designer fashion rarely bothers with maternity dressing at all – viewing pregnancy with the same disdain it reserves for carbs, opaque black tights and fat ankles.

The weird state of pregnancy fashion echoes a similarly odd attitude towards pregnancy in general, according to Edwina Gieve, founder of British label Clary and Peg: “When I was researching maternity fashion, my grandmother told me there was no such thing as maternity wear when she was pregnant in the 1930s and 1940s. She just stayed at home in a house coat. Women were hidden away and confined – that’s where we are coming from.” As well as a perceived lack of glamour, many brands are reluctant to give headspace to maternity ranges, knowing that most women won’t spend much on clothes they will only wear briefly.

With that in mind, the latest trend in maternity wear makes a lot of sense: savvy brands are creating “investment” pieces designed to live long beyond pregnancy – and be worn by people who are not pregnant at all.

One of the most influential ranges in the subtle maternity movement is Hatch, a US brand that has recently launched in the UK through Net a Porter. Its founder and CEO Ariane Goldman says she was “shocked by what was out there” while pregnant five years ago. “I felt ostracised from fashion and from any opportunity to look and feel good. I ended up shopping vintage or buying oversized dresses two sizes up from Acne, which was a good alternative but I couldn’t wear those pieces afterwards.”

Her solution was to create a brand specialising in voluminous shapes that could be worn during and after pregnancy. Prices are far higher than high street (in the “contemporary” range of £100 to £300), but Goldman talks of expensive fabrics and subtle details, making the idea of spending more on something you love and can wear for years sound tempting. The trousers have ruching or elastic that sits beneath the belly for pregnant women and high on the waist for those who are not. At the moment, says Goldman, only 55% of her customers are pregnant: “The rest are women who really appreciate the silhouette.”

On Net a Porter, pregnancy is only mentioned very subtly in Hatch’s brand description (“chic, billowy silhouettes – ideal for women on the go and expectant or post-pregnancy moms”). Net a Porter buyer Sybil Wilmot Smith believes the brand is uniquely inclusive. “We shoot each look on a pregnant and non-pregnant model and stock is flying out. If someone is clever enough to design pieces that still fit, and still have appeal when you’re no longer pregnant then it’s win win. With investment pieces, a woman is inevitably going to be happy to spend a little more if she know the piece is versatile.”

Similarly, Clary and Peg recently tweaked its strapline from “vintage inspired maternity wear” to “vintage inspired womenswear that is maternity friendly”, a subtle shift that reflects Gieve’s belief that clothes should be appealing “regardless of whether women are pregnant or not. We realised we were creating a bit of a battle for ourselves with the word maternity. Now we sample clothes on pregnant and non-pregnant friends to ensure they could be worn with or without a bump.” Fittingly, some of the label’s biggest sales spikes have been precipitated by non-pregnant bloggers, such as Courtney Adamo, pictured above, who have worn the label and posted the evidence on Instagram.

Clearly, making the subtle pregnancy chic look work beyond the third trimester is easier if you are a voluminous Rick Owens tunic or vintage smock dress kind of person – rather than a dedicated follower of bodycon. But with some clever shopping (waistless dresses, longline jumpers and loose kimono-style outerwear all work; Cos is a reliable source of similar shapes at a lower price point), this new approach might just offer a solution to dressing in pregnancy – with no need to shout the m-word, unless you want to.