Here's my take on the shopping situation, now that I'm a third trimester veteran (31 weeks yesterday!):
Don't be surprised to learn that...
- You'll usually have to choose between expensive, ugly, or poor quality. I'm sorry, it's true. However, there are some good options out there - we'll get to that shortly!
- Clothing manufacturers seem to think that numbered pant sizes are no longer necessary, and you'll see jeans and dress pants in S/M/L. However, be assured that the same tiny back pocket will be used on all three sizes because cutting multiple patterns is just too much trouble for pregnant customers. (Can you tell this upsets me?)
- Pants with stretchy elastic waists are COMFORTABLE. You'll revel in their glory at first, but don't be surprised when the stretchiest of stretch denim gives you a saggy butt after prolonged sitting. That said, you don't know that comfort is until you find the right pair of full panel maternity leggings.
- You won't need shirts with elastic on the sides until you're very far along, and otherwise, maternity shirts and dresses are just longer versions of what you usually buy. You can often find better deals by getting non-maternity items in a larger size, especially if you're short like me!
- You'll probably go up one or two bra band sizes because your rib cage expands to accommodate your new giant lungs. It's cool and awful at the same time. Plan to buy bra extenders, and eventually some larger bras (discount chains like TJ Maxx will have name brand options for under $15)
- You need to get used to shopping online, and sales are rare. Most maternity collections are only sold on the web, so fill up that shopping cart enough to get free shipping and try multiple sizes!
When to buy...
I'm sure others will disagree, but the way I see it, there is no point in waiting until you are 5.5 months along and uncomfortable in your normal pants before you break down and buy some that you won't wear for very long. If your pants won't button anymore after the first 2-3 months, get some mid-priced maternity pants and jeans and wear them to death! Struggling to fit in normal jeans causes weird lumps and bumps in the hip area, and the knit belly bands meant to hold up your normal jeans result in large knots on your belly because the button isn't fastened and sticks out. If you need a more substantial full-panel version, get them later and sell them on eBay when you're done or save them for the next pregnancy. Suffering with ill-fitting pants is not worth saving $40 when you already have enough reasons to be uncomfortable!
Shirts, on the other hand, are a different story. All you need is a little extra extra length until your belly really pops, so pick up a few non-ruched maternity tanks to layer under your existing shirts and cardigans and wear them until it starts to look silly. Since a pregnancy spans multiple seasons, you don't want to buy tops in the beginning that will soon be too thick or thin for the weather.
Another option is to buy inexpensive non-maternity pieces in a larger size to last through the first few months and then again after the baby arrives. I bought two $15 plaid flannel shirts from Old Navy in a large instead of a medium, and was able to wear them until I was about 6 months along and will break them out again during the dreaded "fourth trimester" right after Baby Cardigan arrives. Similar maternity versions were $39 each, and would not have gotten as much wear. Another favorite piece is a knit tunic top from Target intended for taller ladies a size larger than I usually wear - I'm pairing it with leggings at the moment and only spent $19 compared to the $29 maternity equivalent 50 feet away.
What you really need...
It doesn't make sense to buy an entire wardrobe that you won't wear long-term. I treated my maternity wardrobe sort of like a packing list, with a few clearance purchases sprinkled in. I invested in some great jeans that fit well, and wore them nonstop from September until now. (My favorites are the Leigh skinny jeans from Topshop, and the Gap Always Skinny but the Topshop pair wins by a mile! I got mine on sale at the store in London, but Nordstrom carries them too) I also got some inexpensive basics like non-ruched maternity tank tops from Target, comfy maternity leggings from Old Navy, and a few thin sweaters from Gap since they're appropriate for my casual office as well as anything I do on the weekend.
Then, I found some stretchy non-maternity dresses that are still in heavy rotation (with leggings) at 31 weeks, as well as a couple of clearance Gap Maternity dresses that fit great and will look nice at my baby showers. Other than that, I'm layering cardigans I already owned over the pieces you see above and rocking my collection of large necklaces and scarves to keep from wearing the same thing all the time.
All in, I think I've spent about $350 thanks to sales and eBay, and many of the pieces will still be useful after Baby Cardigan is here. I can also sell what I won't wear again if my next pregnancy doesn't require cold weather maternity items. I realize that not everyone wants to invest that much money, and someone could certainly get by with less, but I'm very picky about clothes and it's important to me.
Where to shop...
Gap - Their maternity line is my favorite by a mile, and they are one of the only players in the mid-priced range. The styles look like the normal womens line, are of comparable quality, and you won't find many shapeless blobs of fabric. Plus, with constant 40% off promotions and a pretty sweet clearance section, you can get some well-made items for very little money. I am in love with my dresses and sweaters, and plan to wear them next year. However, I must warn you that the denim sizing is crazy and you should read the reviews before you buy or find a store that carries maternity and try it on, then account for stretching of the denim.
Topshop - I checked out the maternity line in store and while a lot of it was not my style, the staple pieces were nicely made and not outrageously priced. If would recommend sizing up in pants, though.
LOFT - Surprisingly, I cannot recommend the LOFT maternity line because I don't own any of the pieces. They only sell online, and their shipping charges are the highest around and I am a cheapskate. However, their non-maternity cardigan selection and sale prices in store are second to none and the sizing generally runs a bit large so there are tons of options. My favorite thick knit dress is actually not maternity, but from the LOFT Lounge collection (love love love that line!), and I want to wear it until I'm an old lady.
Old Navy - Aside from their sweet leggings and tank tops, I'm not impressed by what ON has to offer the pregnant ladies. The fabric used on their tops and dresses is thin and cheap, and the denim stretches out so much that I looked like I had some sort of knee saddlebag after 4 hours (I returned the jeans for a refund). There are a few gems among the collection, like their affordable denim shirt, but for the most part you'll find lots of henley tops and super thin jersey knit dresses that show every lump from your bra.
H&M - Let's just say the quality of the maternity clothing isn't any better than the rest of the items in the store, and the tiny sizing makes it hard to shop online. However, if you have the right body type, you'll find lots of love but it's not astoundingly cheap.
Macy's - At the higher tier stores, you can find some lines like Jessica Simpson and Pea in the Pod, but I didn't really see much for someone who doesn't usually wear drapey jersey tops and swirly prints. Plus, the prices were pretty high to me (think $65 for a top, $79 for pants) but it would be a good place to look if you need a dress for a wedding or party.
A Pea in the Pod - Of the various Destination Maternity lines, this is the higher end option with the cutest stuff. The clothes here are most like what you'd see in regular stores, and the fabrics are not super thin. However, the prices are very steep and the markdowns were not very generous, so don't expect to walk out with a full bag after dropping $100. I do recommend their full panel denim leggings, though, since I ordered a pair on clearance for $30 and have been pleasantly surprised at how comfortable they are.
Target - If you need some sweaters or a basic dress, this is the place to go. However, I was not impressed by the lack of variety in pants, or the fit of the ones I tried. They're definitely not going after someone who plays around with clothes, even though the rest of their womens clothing is fairly on trend, but it's nice to have options you can try in person.
Motherhood Maternity - I can't sew a straight line and I think I could put out a better maternity line than these people. Everything in the store seemed frumpy, as though pregnant ladies are just dying to wear weird henley shirts and tops with an empire tie waist and pull on some "three sizes fit all" jeans and pants with tiny little back pockets and weird baggy legs. I realize that they need to keep costs low to sell at the under $50 price point, but their fabrics were as bad as those at Old Navy and they were charging more for them. (To be fair, it looks like there's a lot more to be had online that isn't as heinous as what I saw in the two stores I visited)
Forever 21 - Unless you are a tiny person and typically enjoy buying clothes there, look elsewhere. All the fabric felt disposable, and the construction didn't look like it would hold up to months of stretching.
There you have it - my very lengthy opinion on maternity fashions. Now, I'd love to know your thoughts on the matter so that our pregnant friends can learn from any other tips not covered here!