Hello Mamas and any other people interested in hearing about the history of breastfeeding fashion and breastfeeding clothes. As I found myself talking about this topic yesterday, yet again, I realized, it's time to just write some of this down for the internet ...
I'll start with the basic consensus of Moms in the United States when it comes to breastfeeding clothes:
They're so hard to find!
I don't like the styles!
Why is some of this so expensive?
Do you feel this way or have you felt this way?
You're not alone.
The fact of the matter is that the breastfeeding fashion world is a thing (especially because Mama's MilkBox says so) but it's super, teeny, weeny, tiny, small in the United States and the reason it is this way is because you're feeling the aftermath of "the rise of formula" from the 50s. Further, the clothing that is available for breastfeeding Moms today is all tied to the history of infant feeding over the last 100 years.
If you want to read some fascinating history on infant feeding, I love this article by Samuel J. Fomon:
Infant Feeding in the 20th Century
In sum, once the refrigerator was around and people could handle and store milk safer, breastfeeding was on the decline. People began to give their baby milk and in the 1920s, infant formula started to become a commodity (the first non-milk formula was made available to the public in 1929). The next 30 years were filled with back and forth re illnesses, allergies and vitamin deficiencies all related to infant nutrition and government intervention. Overall, amongst all the details (I mean, you really need to read that article, it's incredibly enlightening), formula feeding began to quickly rise from the 1950s through the 1970s and as such, there was extremely little demand for breastfeeding clothes.
There's not one significant factor to explain a turning point, but it did start to change in the 1970s: "The increase in breast-feeding in industrialized countries in the 1970s was worldwide, and the reasons for the increase after several decades of decline are not easy to identify. The movement toward increased breast-feeding seemed to arise from the general public rather than from health professionals, and may have been in part associated with negative publicity directed against the formula industry."
There were new regulations for formula that had to be developed in the 70s after it became known that there was an outbreak of vitamin B-6 deficiency in formula-fed infants in the early 1950s and there was an occurrence of a chloride deficiency in formula-fed infants during that same time ... I think Moms were basically being Moms and caught wind of this and that's when they started to think about breastfeeding again. Hence, from 1970 to now, breastfeeding has been on the rise.
With breastfeeding starting to increase, now you can see how this plays into clothes ... there was finally a demand for it; But of course, a very small one still.
The oldest known "breastfeeding fashion line" is Motherwear which is now a currently non-existent business (it closed in 2014). From the 1970s through mid-90s, Motherwear was one of the few options that went hand-in-hand with women making their own breastfeeding clothes (patterns for breastfeeding clothes were actually widely available). Of course, just as breastfeeding was on the rise from that time period, so was the return of women to work thus an increasing angst began in which women felt there was nothing to wear. (I mean, with all these ladies returning to an office, who was sewing their own clothes?) That's when a few of the still-in-business companies began to pop up (Elisa of Milk Nursingwear started with Expressiva Nursingwear in 1997 and then created Milk Nursingwear in 2009. BOOB [they're Swedish] popped up in 1999).
As if this wasn't all fascinating, complicated and intertwined enough - ENTER THE INTERNET. We all know the world has never been the same with this interweb. It has changed the way we communicate, the fact that we can communicate, how we connect and even changed the way retail and fashion are conducted. Previously people would make their fashion purchases from local stores, decide for themselves or with help from the sales staff, complain to close girlfriends when they felt there wasn't enough options and move on with their lives. Now? As it relates to breastfeeding fashion, you can buy anything in an instant, never leave your house, post pictures for people all over the world to see and provide you feedback on (you can get comments from hundreds of women in a day - even in 30 minutes) and more. The problem with this great resource as it relates to breastfeeding clothes and the angst women feel about their options? Designing, creating and selling clothes - especially in this still small (as compared to mainstream retail) is much slower and much harder.
On a positive, the number of women who were frustrated with their options and did something about it has been on the rise. Mama's MilkBox (which is still really new itself) has added over 6 new designers and brands over the past year alone (to our previous 20+; that's a nearly 33% increase in available options). I can think of at least 2 others who are "coming to market" this year as well and many Moms are super excited about those brands. But the other problems? Fit and cost are still bothersome to the overall American population. There's innovation in the style and increasing options but we've also become a population that's used to fast and inexpensive (thank you Target and Wal-Mart).
As I used to explain it to my private clients, when it comes to breastfeeding fashion, we have a triangle of three things but you can only have 2: style, fit and cost. If you want something stylish with a fit that you really enjoy - it might come at a cost; this is the expense of everything that's built into that garment: the design and pattern experience of the people who make it (they need to pay their bills too), the items that are used to make said garments (the improved fabrics, details like zippers and buttons, attention to materials including organic cotton which is on the rise, etc.). You can get inexpensive clothes that will fit, but you might not like the fashion aspect of it. Even clothes that appear stylish and are reasonable in cost (for me that's the price range of $49-$69), once you try the item on, it might not look the way you expected (this is actually more frequent than people are aware; it is related to the "dual function" of many styles but there is a lot of overall feedback that once Moms are nursing, they don't want to be wearing styles made for maternity or items that "make them look pregnant"). I hope this makes sense for everyone.
There's a few potential solutions (and Mama's MilkBox is one of them) but overall, we're still in a holding pattern for the next few years as breastfeeding is on the rise.
The first would be for mainstream retail to start caring as they have the means to make clothes fast and less expensive, but other than H&M, they don't care. (It should be noted that H&M is also a Swedish company. I didn't even get into international breastfeeding and how that relates to breastfeeding clothing options in the United States - but it does.) The overall fashion market of breastfeeding women in the United States (as typical retailers like Macy's, Anthropologie, Ann Taylor, etc. view it) is extremely small compared to the mainstream. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Capitalism in the USA; if the amount of time it takes to create these clothes is not going to have a great financial impact on their bottom line, they're not interested. (And it won't because it turns out it will take them a lot of time as they can use their manufacturers to create the clothes and ship them quickly, but the patterns and fit of breastfeeding clothes is unlike traditional clothes and there are few people who: 1. Understand and know this, 2. Have experience with this and 3. Know how to make this. This is why, for example, there's few options for plus-size breastfeeding Moms. The plus-size options for mainstream retail are already small (yet growing) so you can imagine the uphill battle it is to get plus-size-breastfeeding clothes to market for the even smaller segment of Moms who are looking for it. )
The other option, which is what we're doing now, is turning to the international brands that already have beautiful clothes and an established history with the experience in making and designing them. The downside is that few Moms in the United States know of these brands (this is part of the angst), they don't have the time to figure all of them out and, sometimes, they're expensive (this factors in shipping costs and import taxes).
The final solution, which is where Mama's MilkBox comes into play, is create more demand. I rely upon science, the internet and breastfeeding advocates to first help Moms conclude that they should probably try breastfeeding (and then support them in doing it) and then I run around all day and night trying to let Moms know that breastfeeding clothes are a thing. Mama's MilkBox then pulls together ALL THE BRANDS (old and new, from Sweden, to the UK, to Singapore, to Poland, to Australia and more and then still, all the way back to the United States) and further improves this market by matching breastfeeding Moms (utilizing our Style Profile) to the breastfeeding clothes and styles that we think they'll love. Because we're good at what we do (we're pretty good matchmakers) - we sell more breastfeeding clothes in the United States, improving the overall sales of breastfeeding apparel, further continuing and increasing the demand.
I don't want to toot my own horn (nevermind, yes I do) ... but I also created the Mama's MilkBox service because I think it provides a much needed convenience to breastfeeding Moms in the United States. Until the world knows, readily, that breastfeeding clothes are a thing and where they can quickly and easily go to get them, we save our Subscribers hours of internet searching to try and figure out where they can get breastfeeding clothes that they will like (we also have our own private label which means we have styles you won't find on the internet even if you tried). There's also no Universal Sizing Guide so fit, even within the same labels, varies greatly by style. We reduce this problem by selecting the size that should fit you best, based on the information you give us in your profile, and/or sending 2 sizes in one Shipment so you can try them both on and decide for yourself.
I also use the buying power that I have created with Mama's MilkBox to help drive down the costs of these goods for breastfeeding Moms in the United States. You don't get to see it and it won't be immediate, but every time I go back to our designers and vendors, I order more and more clothes and say, "Now take that back to your manufacturers and get them to lower their costs for making these goods." If you've ever seen an episode of Shark Tank, you know the key to better retail costs also comes down to decreasing the cost of goods sold which can only come from being able to buy your wholesale items in larger quantities.
Readers - this post is way longer than I initially intended for it to be but I do hope it provides you with the information that can at least explain why we are the way we are, how we came to be and where we're going ("we" meaning the providers of breastfeeding clothes in the United States - even when those providers are not US based). When I used to sell maternity and nursing clothes via private appointment only, I had this conversation many times. Honestly, until I created Mama's MilkBox, I felt your same exact angst - Because where was the solution? But I'm really proud of my service and my soul feels good to be (hopefully) a part of the solution. It's ironic that I didn't even figure this out until I drafted this post. My passion has always been families (many years ago I thought about becoming a child advocate lawyer), then I figured I would work on Mama's MilkBox and somehow create more time for attention to the crappy parental leave policies we have in the United States but now that I've written this history (I really have become an expert on this topic over the years), I realize that one of my purposes in life must be to improve upon THIS for women. I always say it's easy to think that "fashion" is superficial - but it's really not. Especially for new Moms. We can never underestimate the power of looking good and feeling good. There's a lot of pressure in the United States for women to "have it all" (that's a whole other blog post for another day). Until then, I do hope to give women more for when they choose to breastfeed their babies.
And on that, I must sign off (and go curate your Shipments!) ...
My name is Elena aka The Breastfeeding Stylist and the creator of Mama's MilkBox and Carmen.
We have one mission here at Mama's MilkBox: help Moms find their "old" fabulous selves in their new normal.