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Rihanna's maternity style isn't just fashionable. It's revolutionary, experts say

Rihanna performs onstage during the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday night. Her performance doubled as a pregnancy reveal.
Gregory Shamus
Getty Images
Rihanna performs onstage during the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday night. Her performance doubled as a pregnancy reveal.

Updated February 14, 2023 at 10:43 AM ET

Rihanna has already been praised for redefining maternity fashion, having rocked crop tops, low-rise pants and lingerie during her first pregnancy last year.

So after the singer-slash-business-mogul-slash-fashion-icon revealed her baby bump at Sunday's Super Bowl halftime show, fans were quick to share their excitement — not just for her growing family, but about her future outfits.

Rihanna has described her maternity style as "rebellious," telling Bustlelast year that she had challenged herself to be creative and didn't want to buy maternity clothes or do "whatever society told me to do before."

"I'm hoping that we were able to redefine what's considered 'decent' for pregnant women," Rihanna told Vogue in April. "My body is doing incredible things right now, and I'm not going to be ashamed of that. This time should feel celebratory. Because why should you be hiding your pregnancy?"

And pregnancy No. 2 appears to be off to a similar start, given that she announced it in an all-red flight suit/breastplate/puffer coat ensemble while suspended on a glass platform high in the air.

Rihanna's influence as an "executive and visual mastermind" makes her pregnancy style "impactful and worth discussing," Solange Franklin, a stylist and consultant, told NPR via email.

"Her unabashed style is a flair to the world that says 'look at me, look at us' and to be seen on your own terms is powerful and thrilling," Franklin added.

Rihanna isn't the first celebrity to show off her pregnancy, or the only pregnant person to have worn a mesh top.

But she has a massive platform, and design experts and historians tell NPR that what she's doing is significant: By challenging society's long-held notion that pregnant people should dress or look a certain way, she's sparking a conversation about their role and rights — and one that advocates hope will lead to substantive change.

A brief history of maternity fashion

Maternity wear as we know it has only been around since the 19th century, explains Serena Dyer, a historian of design and material culture at De Montfort University in England.

Before that, there wasn't a clear distinction between maternity and regular fashion, in part because it was the norm for women to be married and spend a lot of their lives pregnant.

Clothes were made to be adaptable, with waistlines and other elements that could be added or removed as women's sizes changed. (Dyer notes that stays, the precursor to corsets, weren't actually as rigid as we tend to think nowadays.)

The 19th century saw the commercialization of fashion and the emergence of distinct maternity clothes — as well as more "moralizing" around pregnancy as something to be concealed rather than celebrated, Dyer explains.

"And then as we go into the 20th century, it becomes even more commercialized," she adds. "And the invention of things like lycra, spandex, elastane allow for these more specifically kind of stretchy maternity garments that are separate from the more kind of figure-revealing garments of a normal everyday fashion."

Rihanna and her partner ASAP Rocky pictured at Milan Fashion Week in February 2022.
Victor Boyko / Getty Images for Gucci
Getty Images for Gucci
Rihanna and her partner ASAP Rocky pictured at Milan Fashion Week in February 2022.

While there has been a recent push towards more "fashion-centered" lines, most modern maternity wear caters to comfort, Dyer says. Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to stretchy, lose clothes during pregnancy.

But, she says, there should be more options for pregnant people who want to show their identity through fashion — and that goes hand-in-hand with cultural acceptance. Dyer says we're not quite there yet, but getting closer as stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna have challenged the assumption that pregnant women need to dress modestly.

"We're seeing more of a resistance to that and more women wanting to celebrate that changing body, show off that changing body and not necessarily feel like they have to cover themselves up or change who they are as women because they're going through this process," she adds.

Rihanna isn't the first or only person to challenge the norm

Rihanna stands on the shoulders of other women who have fought to make their pregnancies more visible, says Michelle Millar Fisher, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and co-author of Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births (she also leads an art and education program by the same name).

The 20th century saw several pivotal moments in maternity fashion, she explains.

One of them came in 1952, when Lucille Ball convinced her producers to let her keep acting on I Love Lucy during her pregnancy. She used maternity fashion — most notably, the tie-waist skirt — to keep doing her job, and became the first pregnant person to be seen by a major TV audience.

In 1953, Lucille Ball became the first pregnant person to be seen by a major TV audience, in the <em>I Love Lucy</em> show.
CBS Photo Archive / CBS via Getty Images
CBS via Getty Images
In 1953, Lucille Ball became the first pregnant person to be seen by a major TV audience, in the I Love Lucy show.

In 1988, Afro-Swedish singer Neneh Cherry performed on the BBC series Top of The Pops while eight months pregnant.

"And she was asked then, 'Are you going to hurt the baby? Is this a worry for you?' And she very bluntly and shortly said, 'I'm not sick. I'm just pregnant. Get over it, basically,' " Fisher says.

Several years later, a pregnant Demi Moore posed nude for the August 1991 cover of Vanity Fair magazine, which is considered one of photographer Annie Leibovitz's most iconic and (at least at the time) controversial shoots.

It helped change cultural perceptions around pregnancy, with Moore reflecting decades later on the impact it had on "on our permission to embrace ourselves in a pregnant state." It also popularized the pregnancy photoshoot — though Dyer, the historian, says posing for "pregnancy portraits" was a trend back in the 16th and 17th centuries, before pregnancy became something to hide.

More recently, Beyoncé broke the internet in 2017 with her Instagram pregnancy announcement — and Rihanna broke her news with a photoshoot in Jan. 2022 too.

What Rihanna is doing with her wardrobe isn't new, but it's on a level that many non-celebrities can't access, says Gabriella Nelson, a member of the Designing Motherhood collective who works in maternal health policy.

She says throughout her life she's seen women of color wearing mesh or crop tops while pregnant, but getting shamed instead of praised for it. Black women have been at the forefront of style and innovation for a long time, she adds.

"Imma stan Rihanna because I can," Nelson says. "But I'm going to also stan the girls ... that maybe will never see a Super Bowl stage or a runway fashion show or be in Vogue or have their names mentioned in an article, because I know that they are also the vanguards of all of this."

How clothes could lead to change

All of the experts interviewed for this story say the point isn't that pregnant people should all be donning red bodysuits or striving to dress like Rihanna (who happens to be one of the richest women in the world).

It's that pregnant people — and all people, really — should feel comfortable doing whatever is right for their own bodies.

"Whether we're pregnant or not, whether we gain weight or lost weight or had surgery or whatever it is — however, our bodies change — we have the opportunity to express ourselves through what we adorn our bodies with," Nelson says. "And so I want folks to get that from what Rihanna has done: Just be yourself. Do what you want to do, make your own lane and just have fun with it."

And part of the conversation should be about more than just fashion, Fisher says.

She would like to see the celebration of Rihanna's pregnancy spark more discussion of Black maternal mortality in the U.S. — which spends more money per capita on healthcare than any developed country in the world but has worse maternal and infant health outcomes.

The U.S. maternal mortality rate for Black women is nearly three times higher than the rate for white women. A recent New York Times investigation found that the risk remains disproportionately higher regardless of socioeconomic status: Even the richest Black mothers and their babies are twice as likely to die as the richest white mothers and babies.

"It's very easy for us to celebrate these moments when we have a 'win' for being able to see pregnancy in public," Fisher says. "But they are often at the expense of real substantive policy change and real understanding of the ways in which it's incredibly not just difficult, but dangerous, to be a birthing person but specifically a birthing person of color in the United States today."

Substantial changes could include making medicine accessible to more Black doctors, investing more in doulas and passing a nationwide family leave policy. Fisher says she'd love it if every time someone reposted the picture of Rihanna's Super Bowl outfit, they'd include some of those statistics and solutions too.

"That's what I would like to see people really get a handle on," she says. "Because otherwise it's really just dressing up the issue in some very fancy clothes and not really getting to the heart of it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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