First, there was the pregnancy announcement back in January, when she and her boyfriend, rapper A$AP Rocky, were photographed on a “casual” weekend stroll in Harlem. Ri wore a knee-length, hot pink vintage Chanel coat, ripped low-slung jeans and a belly-grazing body chain adorned with a Christian Lacroix crucifix, a Chanel chain belt and a pearl necklace.
People on Twitter loved the look and the fierce pregnancy ’fits that followed.
“Only Rihanna could successfully make her pregnancy belly the perfect accessory,” one tweeter said, while another wrote, “Rihanna’s pregnancy fits is better than a new album.” (That’s saying something since fans have been waiting for a new Rihanna album since 2016.)
Then, the Fenty Beauty founder ramped up her “pregnant but make it sexy” style while attending Milan and Paris fashion weeks over the past month: She donned lingerie and black patent leather boots for a Dior show, a black lace-vinyl crop top and purple fur coat at a Gucci show, and a turquoise Stella McCartney catsuit with bold cut-outs at an afterparty.
Given Rihanna’s fashion darling status, it’s little surprise that these revealing looks have received major praise from stylists, fashion writers and Twitter users. But what’s celebrated at Paris Fashion Week or on a celebrity’s Instagram page isn’t necessarily going to fly at your local Target or a baby shower.
When noncelebrity women swap out conventional maternity clothing in favor of more revealing looks, judgment and side-eyes almost always follow. (Even Rihanna has gotten some criticism on Twitter from whose who believe pregnancy is supposed to be a “wholesome period of a woman’s life,” and others who think it’s just obnoxious to continue wearing outfits that highlight the stomach: “We get it, you’re pregnant.”)
Perla Whyte, a mom in New Jersey, said she opted for more revealing, Rihanna-esque looks when she was pregnant back in 2016. Her pregnancy style included crop tops, bikini tops, crochet dresses and henna designs on her stomach.
“The fact that I was pregnant during the warmer months definitely made all of this easier,” she told HuffPost.
While Whyte got stopped in the street by young people who loved her outfits, her family and friends who belonged to older generations were “a little taken back by the boldness.”
“I remember my grandmother telling me that I needed to cover up my chest area because I was pregnant and couldn’t be sexy,” she said. “But that felt wrong to me because I’ve always loved the body I was in and pregnancy only enhanced it.”
Whyte said she believes a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants during her pregnancy, whether it’s flannels and sweats or crop tops and skintight slinky dresses.
No matter what sartorial choices you make while pregnant, she said, there are always people who feel entitled to judge or criticize you: If you bare your stomach, you’re “showing off” and revealing more than a pregnant woman should; if you opt for oversized sweats and billowy tent dresses, you are “hiding” your stomach and look frumpy and matronly.
“Our bodies are changing so much that to criticize anyone for what they’re wearing is so cruel,” Whyte said. “If pregnant women feel judged, they carry all that energy with them. Why would you want to make a pregnant woman feel bad?”
Traditionally, maternitywear has emphasized modesty above all else.
Covering up during pregnancy is still very much considered the social norm, which is why it’s refreshing to see someone like Rihanna flip the script and make the belly a veritable fashion statement.
“Maternity clothing has always been looked at as basic and safe,” Beverly Osemwenkhae, a stylist and the owner of ProjectBee Wardrobe Consulting, told HuffPost.
“Rihanna is encouraging women to have a little more fun with their wardrobe and embrace being pregnant,” she said. “Maternity clothing is all about cut, so finding silhouettes that are bump-friendly with stretch and a little bedazzled just makes sense.”
But even before Ri made “haute mama maternity style” her thing, others had begun the trend in earnest: Emily Ratajkowski, Nicki Minaj and Ilana Glazer all experimented with crop tops and dresses with strategic stomach cut-outs during their pregnancies.
These celeb-endorsed looks ― bold, unapologetically sexy and fun ― are a far cry from maternitywear of earlier generations that emphasized modesty to an almost infantile degree: Think Peter Pan-collared dresses, twee ruffles, muumuus and tent dresses with high necklines from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
“Even into the 1990s, the social norm was for women to remain covered during pregnancy,” said Charity Calvin Armstead, an assistant professor and fashion programs director at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, whose research includes the evolution of maternitywear.
The maternity looks we’re seeing on celebrities and influencers these days indicate a major shift in how the pregnant body is perceived, Armstead told HuffPost.
“The pregnant body is being treated as a fashionable silhouette rather than at odds with the fashionable [svelte] ideal,” she said. “We’re seeing Rihanna make the pregnant body its own fashionable ideal, celebrating the pregnant figure rather than trying to cover it up.”
Armstead put Rihanna’s maternity outfits in the same league as pregnant Demi Moore’s 1991 nude “Vanity Fair” cover. Both suggest that pregnancy isn’t something to hide away and that, pregnant or not, your sexuality is still very much a part of who you are.
“That cover was the earliest harbinger of the shift to come,” Armstead said. “Now we have Rihanna.”
When “regular” women dress like Rihanna, they endure considerably more judgment
While pregnant last year, Seccola, a mom of one in Massachusetts, refused to spend money on maternity clothes. Instead of revamping her wardrobe, she opted for her usual, nonpregnancy style: Sporty chic, just in larger sizes.
“I lived in crop tops which showed my pregnancy bump in its full glory up until I gave birth,” said Seccola, who asked to use only her first name for privacy reasons.
At first, Seccola said she felt insecure watching her body change in such a dramatic way. Eventually, though, she felt empowered to show off her growing stomach. She said her husband loved the way she looked, and even her family thought her pregnancy style was “cute and freeing.”
When Seccola would leave the house, however, reactions from strangers were considerably different. She recalled a time at the airport when a security guard ― an older woman ― pulled her aside and suggested she should cover up.
“I knew she meant no harm, but the whole incident was rude and uncalled for, as it’s my body and my pregnancy and I make the rules about how I dress,” Seccola said. “The way I looked at it, pregnancy is so taxing. Being able to feel free and comfy in what I wore was a small reward.”
It’s all the more exasperating to tell a woman to cover up if she’s pregnant in the sweltering summer months. When Maria, a podcast host in New Jersey, was pregnant in the summer of 2015, she could usually be found wearing a swimsuit at the pool or sporting crop tops.
“I was basically allergic to traditional maternitywear,” said Maria, who asked to use her first name only due to privacy. “I’m on the thin side and those obnoxiously long dresses just swallowed me up.”
Maria’s wardrobe choices worked for her, even though her mother usually scoffed at them.
“I remember one time I decided to wear a crop top, shorts and a summer cardigan for a trip to the boardwalk. My mother said it was ‘inappropriate’ to have my belly out and said I should go change,” Maria told HuffPost. “I just looked at her and told her no, it’s hot.”
Maria said she hopes Rihanna’s game-changing maternity style convinces pregnant people they don’t have to waste money on traditional maternitywear.
“I’ve always thought maternity clothes were a scam, and Rihanna is out here proving the theory right,” she said. “There’s no legitimate reason to change your whole style because of pregnancy — it’s all marketing and fatphobia.”
Beth Weigle, a professor at the University of Georgia’s textiles, merchandising and interiors department whose work centers around the “psychology of dressing for pregnancy,” thinks Rihanna’s pregnancy style is revolutionary for another reason, too.
“So often when a Black woman shows skin, especially Black women with lower incomes, they’re seen as ‘promiscuous’ as opposed to ‘sexy,’” Weigle told HuffPost.
“This separate set of ideals and subjectivities toward pregnant Black women is what makes Rihanna and her maternitywear style such a symbol of power,” she said. “I think she’s telling pregnant women, particularly pregnant Black women, you are in control and have the agency to dress yourself as you please.”
Dressing while pregnant is hard enough without considering the sexist optics of how you’ll look. Weigle, who is studying Generation Z’s attitudes about pregnant body ideals, hopes Rihanna and her maternity style will help foster a more accepting world for all pregnant people who just want to look and feel their best.
“From my research, I have found that Generation Z, like earlier generations, is nervous about the future of pregnant body ideals,” the professor said of the demographic born between 1997 and 2012. “They picture themselves showing their protruding stomachs and décolletage but wanting to cover areas of concern on their lower body.”
To counter that, “what we need is more celebrities like Rihanna who share with us the pleasure they find in their beautiful, ‘imperfect’ bodies,” she continued. “That alone can be really empowering.”
As Rihanna put it herself when asked about her maternity looks at a Fenty Beauty Universe party in Los Angeles last month, “When you look good, you feel good. I’ve heard that for a very long time, but it’s true. It really can get you up off that couch and make you feel like a bad bitch.”