Delivering Comfort: maternity clothing and the postal service

To mark International Women’s Day, Senior Curator Corinne looks at history of postal maternity uniform.

Of the hundreds of uniform items in our collections, there are only a handful of maternity clothing or accessories. Despite the introduction of uniforms over 200 years ago, maternity uniform options have only been available since the 1990s. Why did women receive uniforms later than men? And why didn’t the first uniforms for women include maternity clothing?

Women in the workplace

Women did not officially enter the postal service in large numbers until the 1870s. During the late 19th century women in the Post Office mostly worked in non-uniformed roles as sub-postmistresses, sorting clerks or telegraphists.

Few women were employed as Letter Carriers (the early term for postmen) during this time. Although male Letter Carriers were issued with a formal uniform, female Letter Carriers provided their own clothing. From the 1890s, only a small number were lucky enough to receive a skirt and waterproof cape to help protect them from the elements.

Our archive records contain little discussion of pregnant staff in the 19th century. Women working in the Post Office were subject to a rule known as a marriage bar. Introduced in 1876, it meant that women had to resign when they got married. It also forbid employing married women in established positions, roles that entitled a person to a pension and other benefits.

The marriage bar reflected wider 19th century ideas about marriage, pregnancy and the role of women in society. To the Post Office, a pregnant women would likely be married, and therefore not allowed to work, so the need for maternity clothing would likely not even have been considered.

A group of women sitting in front of a long counter sorting mail. Some of them look at the camera.

Women working in a Sorting Office Around late 19th century (2012-0151/01)

Women’s first uniforms

The outbreak of the First World War meant the Post Office recruited thousands of women and girls to take on roles previously reserved for or dominated by men. More women began delivering mail in towns and cities across the county and girls worked as telegraph messengers.

In 1914, with increasing numbers of women in public facing roles, the Post Office issued women with a uniform consisting of a skirt, coat and blue straw hat. This was the first time that a full uniform specifically for women was consistently issued.

A staged photograph of postwomen wearing the Post Office's first uniform (a long coat and straw hat). Some of them hold bikes, one with a fabric basket labelled "Barnet".

Group of uniformed postwomen at Barnet, 1914-1918 (POST 118/2330)

Women’s employment also increased in the Second World War. By November 1941, there were around 100,000 women employed by the Post Office as permanent or temporary staff.
Although the marriage bar was suspended during both the First and Second World Wars, there were no known adaptations made to uniform for pregnancy.

Maternity rights and clothing

By the end of the Second World War, women were better recognised as valued workers to the postal service. The marriage bar was finally abolished in the Post Office in 1946.

Between the late 1940s and the 1990s, the rights of women working for the Post Office changed. Over time, maternity leave allowances and payments were made available. With the introduction of maternity laws in the UK, ideas about the role of women and pregnancy slowly changed. More staff continued working while pregnant and returned to work after having children.

However, there was still little consideration given to the comfort of staff wearing a uniform while pregnant. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Royal Mail started to consider the clothing needs of pregnant staff in uniform roles.

Comfort and Style

Royal Mail records show that that by the 1980s pregnant staff were expected to wear larger sizes of the existing uniform. This didn’t meet the needs of many of them, who chose to wear their own clothing, breaking uniform rules.

In the early 1990s Royal Mail considered letting staff buy their own clothing and reimbursing them for it. However, they didn’t think the maternity clothing available to buy in the shops was suitable. Instead, they decided to introduce official maternity clothing to make sure pregnant staff looked smart and were comfortable. They asked manufacturers to make a variety of uniform samples which were tested by members of staff.

Issued in 1993, the final range included two types of dresses, one pair of trousers and a shirt in three different sizes. At this time, it was estimated that around 800 postwomen a year were pregnant.

A dark blue maternity dress with light blue collar with red piping, and two rows of buttons going from the top to the bottom of it

Royal Mail Maternity Dress Around 1993 (2011-0076)

Pictured below, this article from the Royal Mail Courier employee magazine was used to promote the introduction of maternity wear. It details the items of clothing available and features positive comments from posties Belinda and Emma on their experience of wearing the new uniform.

The uniforms look very smart. Up to now I’ve been wearing my own clothes and it’s nice to look like one of the team again. I think it’s a good idea and certainly the way forward (Emma Watson, Staines Delivery Office, Courier Staff Magazine, February 1993).

A newspaper article titled 'Maternity wear boost for postal mums-to-be' with the image of two pregnant staff members wearing their new uniforms

‘Maternity wear boost for postal mums-to-be’ Royal Mail Courier Magazine Article (POST 92/987)

Since then, Royal Mail has continued to provide maternity uniform for those who need it.

Changing times

The end of the marriage bar reflected a change in attitudes towards women in the postal service. However, it took much longer for specific needs to be addressed. The introduction of maternity wear in the 1990s represented an important step forward. For the first time, the need for staff to look smart in uniform went hand in hand with meeting the needs of pregnant staff.

Find out more about the roles and changing conditions for women in the postal service.


Maternity wear boost for postal mums-to-be’, Royal Mail Courier Magazine Article, POST 92/987.

Royal Mail Maternity Dress Around 1993, 2011-0076.

Discover the battles won for uniform equality and the right to express identity in our Dressed to Deliver exhibition, opened until September 2024.