Maternity uniforms: filling the ranks with fashion victims

Decca Aitkenhead on this season's best-kept secret - the MoD's new kit for mothers-in-arms
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As fashion experiments go, it is possibly the least promising since the puffball skirt. The Ministry of Defence has ordered 4,000 sets of maternity clothes for servicewomen, and fashion gurus are fearing the worst. The MoD meets Mothercare, in a venture combining the worst possible ingredients - English design, maternity wear and uniforms.

The supplier charged with the task of designing practical, ready-for- battle maternity wear is Dewhirst (Uniforms) of Leeds. It is a name better known on the parade ground than the catwalk, having supplied uniforms to the forces for nearly 20 years. But director Paul Fryer is learning the tricks of the haute couture trade, and keeping mum.

"I can't tell you anything at all, I'm afraid," he insists. "No, not a thing." Why the style should be this season's best-kept fashion secret is a mystery. Mr Fryer is perhaps bound by the Official Secrets Act, and the garments are to be used as offensive weapons.

The military look first featured in high fashion back in the Forties. Women's clothes developed an austere style, due to rationing and military influence, and the uniform look was in vogue. More recently, designers such as Amanda Wakely and Sonja Nuttal have featured uniform theme in their lines.

But Dewhirst will be designing a British fashion first - combat mums in military maternity wear - and designer Ally Capellino is pessimistic.

"What on earth are they going to do? It's not a design project I would really relish. I feel so sorry for women in uniforms in this country, especially in the police and the Post Office. They look horribly dull, and the cut of the trousers gives them huge thighs.

"And maternity wear is no better. Pregnant women shouldn't be treated in such an extraordinary way, as if they are so crazily different. Designers do go an put all those gathers around the bust and get all blousey.

"Uniforms and maternity clothes - what a thing to tackle."

The full maternity range will be issued by February, the MoD says. Servicewomen no longer able to fit into regulation wear will receive a natty box set containing a tunic top, a skirt, two long-sleeved shirts, two short-sleeved shirts and a cardigan. Colours will be in keeping with the relevant service - blue for the RAF and Royal Navy, green for the Army.

Anita Elderkin, head of design at Dorothy Perkins, has been overseeing the chain's expansion into maternity wear. "Knitwear and leggings just aren't good enough any more. We've had that for far too long, but I've no idea what they are going to make for military uniforms. I hope they realise you don't just make everything bigger."

Pregnancy is proving an expensive business for the MoD. The Dewhirst order comes to around pounds 250,000, and an additional 1,000 outfits will be ordered each year. "The clothes are strictly non-returnable. Our women won't be wearing any second-hand stuff," the MoD insists.

But this kindness towards pregnant servicewomen is long over due. The Government has already paid out on 3,500 unfair dismissal claims from former servicewomen sacked for being pregnant; the total bill may come to pounds 50m. Think of the money they could have saved if they had just had a more open approach to uniform design.