Escaping the Womb. Essay by Antonia Nessen

Escaping the Womb

Maternity and nursing clothes are an overlooked chapter in fashion history, but in the 1930s the symbolic value of clothing was considered to have a deep connection to motherhood.

By Antonia Nessen

One of the reasons for our obsession with fashion is our unconscious desire to return to the womb. This is one of the conclusions in J. C. Flügel’s famous book “The Psychology of Clothes” from 1930. When I was seven months pregnant I went to the Royal Library in Stockholm to borrow their dusty old copy. A few months later I thought about Flügel’s application of psychology to clothing as I was pushing a stroller across a nineteenth century iron bridge together with a friend. The water surface below us reflected the gray sky. Spring was lingering and the wind pulled us closer to the railing. “Was it a near-death experience?” my friend asked. I said no because, honestly, I never thought I was close to dying, even though the prolonged pushing phase ended up with a ventouse delivery. My friend looked at me with incredulous eyes as we kept walking, covered up in those oversized woolly coats that Flügel saw as representative of the idea of fashion as shelter. On the one hand our outfits shield us from harsh weather, on the other hand they protect our inner selves against the general unfriendliness of the world.

At the time, Flügel wasn’t the only writer to compare fashion to a house. Like snails and turtles, we carry “a sort of home upon our backs.” But with the help of Freud he takes this comparison further. The house “has been shown by psycho-analysts to be a frequent symbol of the mother and the mother’s womb,” he writes (1930:84). Just like the house, clothes are treated as a place of safety to which we can withdraw like turtles hiding in their shells. “If we are in unfriendly surroundings, whether human or natural, we tend, as it were, to button up, to draw our garments closely around us” (1930:77). On a psychological level, Flügel is convinced that clothes work as a reassurance against the lack of love and the separation from the mother. “Deep down in the heart of mankind is the longing for a mother who will protect us, cherish us, and warm us with her love – a longing which seems to take us back to the very earliest stages of our being” (1930:80). Flügel illustrates this concept by citing, as one example, a passage on fashion by Thomas Carlyle where he speaks of his dead wife in a way that brings an archetype of a mother to mind: “She wrapped me round like a cloak to keep all the hard and cold world off me.” Flügel also points to the Freudian thought that mothers are associated with clothes from early on since they usually are the ones who dress and undress their children. A mother’s interest in dressing her offspring up no matter how old they get can even turn into fetishism, a way for a mother to cling to her children, in order to fend off castration fears.

These ideas might seem peripheral, but they had a big impact on popular culture. In 1933, one of the intellectuals influenced by Flügel, Tristan Tzara wrote about the sexual symbolism of Elsa Schiaparelli’s hats. A designer whose collections have gone down in history as art works with multiple layers of surrealist meaning. One of her head pieces, in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, was shaped as a woman’s shoe in black wool felt with a pink heel. Suitably, Flügel writes (1930:26-27) that “it is only in the last few years that there has been any clear realization of the fact that clothes not only serve to arouse sexual interest but may themselves actually symbolize the sexual organs.” In general, those male garments that are most “associated with seriousness and correctness are also the most saturated with a subtle phallicism.” The most obvious example of the erect phallus is the stiff collar but even voluminous garments such as the coat, the trousers, and the mantle may be phallic symbols, while the shoe, the girdle and most jewels may “be corresponding female symbols.”

It was snowing outside that early December morning around five o’clock. “Do you want to see the placenta?” asked the midwife. “Of course,” my husband and I said in unison. As she was spreading her fingers looking like a baker, the disposable organ seemed malleable and elastic, shimmering with fat and blood. “It looks like tripes,” my husband said referring to the edible lining from the stomachs of cattle and sheep. With a broad smile the midwife called the placenta “a studio apartment with a kitchen.” Our daughter was obviously happy with the accommodation since she had put on 4, 7 kilos before having to struggle for hours to escape the womb. I could easily imagine her as officer Ripley in Alien (1979), screaming “Mother” in a vain attempt to convince the Nostromo’s computer to see reason only to narrowly make it out in the shuttle as the ship exploded behind her. The science fiction horror masterpiece, soaked in themes of fears of female reproduction and childbirth, reminds me of the old saying that although the snail, and the turtle, carry their homes upon their backs, they also carry their graves. Because Freud also spoke about death drive, “Thanatos”, when he spoke about our desire to climb back into the womb, namely our longing for the ultimate state of peace and calm.

When you are pregnant your body takes the front stage. You enter a kind of liminal condition where you stand on a threshold between your previous life and the unknown. During these months unwritten social rules no longer apply and you have to be prepared to be scrutinized since it is okay for people to comment on your weight gain, your body shape, what you are wearing, your state of mind and so on. “Why are you hiding your belly?” people asked me during the first couple of months when I wore A-line dresses and loose-fitting shirts. When Flügel wrote “The Psychology of Clothes”, women were more inclined than men to dress modestly, something he explained by the various “taboos which affect the female sex at certain times (e.g., childbirth, menstruation)” often justified by the rigorous opposition between body and soul upheld by many religions (1930:103). In the 1990s, the cultural landscape had definitely shifted. With the growing interest in celebrity pregnancies, maternity clothes have become a market where the ‘Sexy Mama’ is a celebrated and, at least to some of us, intimidating trend.

So where were we heading when we left the bridge on that damp day in March? My friend and I reached the Moderna Museet where Niki de Saint Phalle exhibited her sensational Mother-Goddess to critical acclaim in 1966. The gigantic sculpture named “SHE – a cathedral” was one of her pregnant “Nanas”. More than 100 000 visitors ended up walking through an opening in her vagina to experience the different installations inside. De Saint Phalle lovingly called her ‘the biggest whore in the world’.

Antonia Nessen is a writer. She holds an MA in Arts from Stockholm University and is one of the founders of Contributor Magazine.