A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, A WOMAN I worked with was pregnant with her first child. She'd always been well dressed, but she looked even better pregnant. It helped that she had money to spend on chic maternity clothes.
When I became pregnant, I vowed to treat myself to good-looking outfits.
The first rule I discovered: Tailored clothes are more flattering. You might be tempted to buy big stuff you'll grow into; instead, buy as you grow. Wear big clothes too early and you'll just look big all over.
You will face an in-between period when your old clothes are too small but maternity stuff is too big. Be glad for spandex.
Matte black jersey is a pregnant woman's best friend. Yeah, it gets boring, but it's flattering, comfortable, and versatile. Plus you can wear the stretchy material after giving birth and not look like you're still wearing maternity clothes.
Lowriders are another friend and helped me avoid those matronly half-circle belly panels that have plagued maternity clothes for so long. The best-looking, most comfortable maternity jeans and pants go under the belly, either with a looser-than-usual zippered waist or an elastic band. If you don't want your stomach hanging over your pants, try something stretchy with a high waist but no panel.
No matter how well you shop, you'll make a few bad choices--and you'll discover different return policies. A Pea in the Pod, Mimi Maternity, and Motherhood Maternity (three price levels of the same company) allow exchanges only. Underwear and swimsuit sales are final--no small matter if you're buying a $180 tank suit at A Pea in the Pod. Most online maternity stores, where you can't try on stuff, let you return anything; Gap and Old Navy even offer free return shipping.
One last tip: Don't assume you're stuck shopping in maternity stores. Look for elastic waists and bigger (or men's) sizes in regular shops. My pregnancy staples included a size-L pull-on gym skirt from J. Crew that I wore for walking the dog, a pair of size-M yoga pants from Old Navy, peasant blouses, and Gap overalls.
As for maternity wear, here are some favorite sources, local stores and Web sites:
Babystyle.com. Babystyle carries its own line as well as Belly Basics, L'Attesa, and others. Favorite finds: black stretchy hip-hugger pants and I-sleeve tees. Prices are reasonable, and there are frequent sales and deals on shipping. The site also sells appealing baby clothes, toys, and gear. Feel free to ignore the online advice from Cindy Crawford and nursery-decorating tips from former Melrose Place actress Josie Bissett.
Belly Basics, boutiques within Bloomingdale's (Tysons Corner only) and Nordstrom; www.bellybasics.com. The packaging is annoying--everything comes in a box, so unless the store has an item on display, you may have to open a box to get a look at each garment. But these cute, midprice basics can look trendy or traditional, depending on how you wear them.
Gap Maternity, online at www.gap.com. Good for basics: faded-jean skirts, ribbed T-shirts, cotton sweaters. Colors are limited, as is the selection of skirts and dresses. I've also found that many regular Gap items--like sweaters and T-shirts--fit during pregnancy, if you buy a size or two larger than normal. Free shipping on returns, or you can return items to a Gap store. Some stores, including the Arundel Mills outlet, are beginning to carry the maternity line.
H&M, 2700 Potomac Mills Cir., Woodbridge; 703-497-4333. The maternity line of this Swedish megabrand, relatively new to the Washington area, is called "Mama," and on some labels is its motto: "Enjoy your pregnancy." H&M has great prices on basics: T-shirts are around $10, cute tops are less than $20, and a friend found a really decent black suit for $75. Pants tend to be over-the-belly style; most items are either formfitting or tailored.
Liz Lange, 888-616-5777, www.lizlange.com. Beautiful, high-end clothes--including swanky wrap dresses, stretch-cashmere sweaters, and tab-waist tailored pants--designed by a former Vogue editor. The catalog (sign up online to receive one) gave me ideas for how to wear things, like layering T-shirts and pulling a skirt's waistband below my belly.
A mass-market Liz Lange line is now sold through Target (www.target.com). The styles mimic Lange's high-priced originals: striped tailored shirts, slim-fitting pants, a body-hugging dress in a bold, bright stripe. Prices--nothing over $25, and most under $20--are way below those for Lange's regular line. So is quality, but aren't maternity clothes sort of disposable anyway?
Metromom, www.metromom.com. For women who need a professional look. It's heavy on "suiting," and there's even a category for Orthodox Jewish women that lists modest items with below-knee hems and below-elbow sleeves. Though the Web site is not flashy, the quality of the clothes is great. I found a beautiful, simple black-tie-appropriate dress to wear to two weddings.
Mommy Chic, www.mommychic.com. These upscale, feminine clothes come in appealing patterns like subtle stripes and classic plaids. The styles are fun yet mature--and don't look like what you find elsewhere. Check out the cute, fitted gingham tops and the gabardine boat-neck top and matching fishtail skirt.
Naissance on Melrose, www.naissancematernity.com. NOM supplied a lot of the clothes for Rachel's pregnancy on Friends, including the infamous tank top that she rolled up to a belly-baring length. This is one of the few sources for nontraditional, Los Angeles-esque looks: lots of cargo pants, tie-dye, and cleavage-baring dresses with uneven hems.
9 Maternity, 12246 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-468-2022; www.9maternity.com. This new boutique carries some of the hippest, freshest brands around--like Pumpkin Maternity and Naissance. Tummi's denim suit (with lace-up pants and fitted jacket) is too cute. Baby clothes, books, and diaper bags, too.
Old Navy, online at www.oldnavy.com. The quality isn't as good as the Gap's, but the prices are fantastic, and some designs are more fun. A stretchy, shirred cap-sleeve dress for $24 and a $30 swimsuit both earned me compliments. Free shipping on returns, or you can take returns to an Old Navy store. Some branches are beginning to carry the maternity line--locally, branches in Bowie (301-352-4538) and Dulles Town Center (703-404-0271).
A Pea in the Pod/Mimi Maternity/Motherhood Maternity, many local stores; maternitymall.com. Each offers a range of styles, from businessy top-and-pants combos to sheer leopard-print tops and leather jeans. A Pea in the Pod is on the pricey side (T-shirts in the $70 range, Seven jeans with elastic waistbands for $160), but the stores are a pleasure to shop in--saleswomen offer a glass of water, take your shopping bags, ask about your due date. Mimi carries youthful styles, at prices comparable to Banana Republic, including corduroy flares and Asian-print tops with sashes. Motherhood is less appealing: It's overcrowded with merchandise, the styles can be frumpy, and the lower prices mean tackier, less-touchable fabric. I did, however, find a nice pair of lowrider jeans for $35.
Pickles & Ice Cream, 1301 S. Joyce St., Arlington; 703-415-4441; www.picklesmaternity.com. This shop carries fun casual clothes as well as businesslike attire. There's a good sampling of Japanese Weekend, whose dark-denim flare jeans and swirly-print tops are hard to find in Washington. You'll find T-shirts and stretchy pants from Belly Basics, bold-patterned dresses from Olian Maternity, and a wall hung with pantyhose and underwear. Bonus for pregnant shoppers: a spacious restroom.
Pumpkin Maternity, www.pumpkinmaternity.com. Call it Liz Lange's SoHo sister, slightly less pricey and more offbeat: superflattering corduroy jean skirts, an adorable tank dress with a big dot over the belly, and the hippest diaper bag I saw anywhere: a messenger style that my husband said he wouldn't be embarrassed to carry. The designer is in fact a woman named Pumpkin.