MARIETTA, Ga. - For 12 years, Vivian Brown had no problem finding attractive business suits for her job as an on-camera meteorologist for The Weather Channel.
When Ms. Brown became pregnant with her first child in 2000, she discovered the trials and tribulations many professional female workers say they experience when shopping for their expanding waistlines.
"I couldn't believe I wasn't able to find anything appropriate to wear just because I was pregnant," said Ms. Brown, who has worked the afternoon shift on the cable weather channel for years. "I was practically frustrated."
Facing a television camera each day, Ms. Brown became fed up with the poor choices and ugly patterns she found in Atlanta-area stores. So she set out to open her own maternity wear store aimed at female executives and business women.
While most maternity wear stores see professional clothes account for around 15 percent of their inventory, Ms. Brown founded a store, The Warm Front, with an inventory that is 85 percent board-room wear.
The store opened in October in Marietta, just north of Atlanta, where The Weather Channel's studios are located.
Ms. Brown says her goal was to create a clothing outlet where women could find suits, dresses and other clothes that were consistent with the dress code of their workplaces.
"Nowadays, you have so many women in the work force that, when they find themselves pregnant, there's a huge need to have this appropriate attire," said Ms. Brown, who is now expecting twins in May.
Kelly Fleming can attest to the growth of the maternity business-wear industry. The Thomson resident, who is founder and CEO of the 17-store Pickles & Ice Cream franchise, said maternity apparel manufacturers have made big improvements to the business clothes they began making several years ago.
"First of all, the suits are much more versatile," she said, adding that adjustable, "under-the-belly" style pants look more like traditional pants and allow women to wear a more fitted jacket.
"The fitted styles are so popular right now," she said. "When a jacket is left open, it doesn't look like maternity at all."
Ms. Fleming also said maternity business apparel is more functional, allowing women an easier transition from casual to workplace to evening settings.
"One of the bigger advantages pregnant women have now is the change to business casual," she said. "A woman can wear a twinset and skirt as a casual ensemble or wear some pumps with it and wear it to work."
Lily Del Cueto, a Miami-based designer, accidentally created the well-known maternity line, Olian, in the early 1990s, when she used her fashion background to create clothing styles for plus-sized women. Pregnant women noticed the clothes, which Ms. Del Cueto wore while she was expecting, and asked if she would consider selling to the maternity market.
"We started out of the house with just one seamstress," Ms. Del Cueto said. "We would contract the work out. Then we bought one warehouse. Then we expanded to two, three, four warehouses. Now we're all over the United States and in Singapore, Kuwait, South America, Central America."
As more women continue to work while pregnant, the style and design of maternity clothes have evolved as well. No more are women forced to wear what some describe as "tent dresses."
"Now there's a trend in showing and accentuating the belly, especially for the girls who had a good figure before," Ms. Del Cueto said.
Other lines, such as Duet, Ripe and Ran, offer women clothes that can easily be altered after birth or saved for future pregnancies.
"They try to keep up with more of the regular styles and make maternity clothes according to whatever the styles are in the regular fashion world," said Kelli Nash, co-owner of She's Having a Baby, a maternity store in Athens.
Ms. Nash says women are getting more for their money these days as far as maternity clothes go.
"The clothes they're making now pretty much carry you from beginning to end," she said, meaning that designs allow for wear during all nine months of the pregnancy and afterward.
Ms. Fleming agreed that versatility has become a big selling point.
"In this economy, people don't want to spend a lot of money for something they can wear for a finite amount of time," she said. "These under-the-belly pants and skirts can be worn through the whole pregnancy and after as well."
Carla Purcell, a sales associate at Motherhood Maternity in Jacksonville, Fla., said many of her customers are pleased to see stores offering wider varieties of dress than they did in the 1980s and 1990s.
"Instead of having to wear the over-sized clothing, they are happy they can come here and find business suits, church suits and pants," she said.
Ms. Brown, who buys all the clothes for her store, has plans to launch her own designs. She already has created matching pajamas for both mother and child, available now under the label Vivi.
Not all professional women say they want their maternity clothes to look exactly like the wardrobe they were wearing before they became pregnant. Mickey Montevideo, owner of MYM Public Relations, also in Athens, said she didn't attempt to hide her 2001 pregnancy from clients.
"Our situation was a miracle. I didn't get pregnant until I was 41," said Ms. Montevideo. "I was so proud to be pregnant that if I had anybody who didn't want to accept me as a pregnant woman in the professional world, I didn't want to work with them."
Ms. Montevideo, whose clients include nonprofit organizations, government organizations and several small businesses, said she often passed on shopping at maternity stores, borrowing hand-me-downs from friends, instead. Now, she is doing the same for other pregnant women.
"I have been able to pass clothes on to other women to share the memories I have," she said.