Fashion statements can be political. In January, it was vividly illustrated by the women wearing black at the Golden Globe awards ceremony, an organized effort to protest sexual harassment and women’s inequality in Hollywood. And even before haute-couture black gowns and power-white pantsuits worn by presidential candidates, there were “bloomers” worn by nineteenth-century women’s-rights activists to protest their subjugation, and, of course, white dresses with yellow sashes, the preferred uniform for suffragists marching together in protest.
I didn’t expect to find this sort of fashion consciousness in the suffrage movement when I began archival research for my new book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight for the Vote (Viking), a deep dive into the history of the activists behind the suffrage movement. After all: These women were freedom-fighters; I didn’t think they cared about what they wore to the revolution. But they did. Because perceptions hold power, and if women were going to be judged by their appearance — which they were then, just as they are now — then the “Suffs” wanted to shape their own image. Sartorial symbolism became a part of their strategy in the quest for the vote. They expressed themselves through their garments and costume jewelry, imbuing their fashion choices — and color palettes — with layers of meaning.
In America, they wore white dresses, shoes, and hats in demonstrations and parades to symbolize their purity of purpose, accented by yellow to express enlightenment and the rays of the sun marking a new dawn for women. They adorned themselves with sashes and belts, pins, brooches, and necklaces in the suffrage colors of purple, white, gold/yellow, and green — signifying loyalty, high purpose, faith, and hope, respectively. In Britain, jewelers responded to the demand for suffrage ornaments by setting emeralds, amethysts, and pearls into gold to create wearable adornments.
Advocating for suffrage was a lonely business: these women faced contempt and condemnation in their communities, their churches, even their homes; those who had the nerve to speak or demonstrate in public endured barrages of rotten eggs, vicious insults, physical attack and even imprisonment. So wearing the suffrage colors became a unifying tool for the movement, providing comfort and a sense of community to those on the barricades.
But at times, the women advocating for their own social and political freedom were punished for being just too fashion-forward. The earliest women’s-rights activists, in the 1850s, embraced “dress reform” as a way to escape the shackles of tight-laced, whalebone corsets, pounds of petticoats, long heavy skirts, and high-buttoned blouses that deliberately restricted their movements to keep them from entering the public sphere. Dress reformers railed against the dictates of women’s fashion as “a male conspiracy to make women subservient” by smothering them in cloth. But the brave women, including suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who adopted the costume of pantaloons under a short skirt, popularized by feminist editor Amelia Bloomer, soon found themselves to be the objects of such bitter ridicule (women wearing pants were deemed a threat to American men’s masculinity) that they gave up wearing “bloomers” altogether. They realized their radical dress choice was too easy a target and distracted attention from their fundamental arguments and goals.
The Suffs learned their lesson. From then on, suffragists went in for traditional styles, heavy on lace bodices and petticoats, to prove their femininity and stave off the savage depiction of suffragists in the press as ugly, un-sexed, cigar-chomping “she-men.” Initially, Susan Anthony was depicted in coarse and masculine caricature, with her “dress hanging in uneven scallops, and carrying a large umbrella,” as one movement leader explained, while “other suffragists were made to look like escapers from the insane asylums.” The more conservative anti-suffragists, however, were drawn as “good looking, fashionably dressed, highly respectable women.” But, as the Votes for Women movement slowly gained traction and public acceptance in the late nineteenth century, the way in which the press described suffragists’ dress also changed.
In the seven-decade span of the woman-suffrage crusade, clothes made “the cause” visible.
Fashion journals like Vogue, which began publication in 1892 with a slightly ambivalent attitude toward the demand for the vote, soon sensed the popular Zeitgeist and adopted a surprisingly sympathetic pose toward the suffrage cause: many issues featured editorials vigorously supporting the movement and lavish photo-spreads of elegant suffrage leaders in chic outfits.
Susan Anthony’s signature red-silk shawl became such a meme of the women’s movement that when she showed up on the podium of a suffrage convention without it draped around her shoulders, the reporters in the press box refused to write a word until she put it on: “No shawl, no story,” they insisted. Miss Anthony dispatched an assistant to fetch the shawl, and the convention received the news attention it deserved. Anthony’s protégé, twentieth-century suffrage leader Carrie Catt, adopted her own fashion totem: a bespoke, sapphire-blue “Ratification Dress,” which she wore while campaigning state to state in 1919 and 1920, stirring up enthusiasm for the approval of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Perhaps the most creative use, or subversion, of fashion norms were the tailor-made “prison outfit” re-creations worn by Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party suffragists — who’d been imprisoned, tortured, and force-fed for picketing the White House — on their 1919 “prison special” cross-country publicity tour. Decked out in their prison garb, they led rallies and parades in cities across the nation, simultaneously advertising the cause while embarrassing Woodrow Wilson’s administration.
And then there’s the most prized — or despised — emblem of the suffrage movement: the “jail door pin” or “prison pin,” issued only to those suffragists who had served time for their acts of civil disobedience in the name of suffrage. A precise model of the cell doors in London’s Holloway Prison, complete with tiny bars and a little heart-shaped lock, this was one piece of jewelry that could not be bought; it had to be earned, at a dear personal price. Alice Paul, who earned her own pin during her time as a suffrage fighter in England, brought the pins home to the U.S. movement and bestowed them on her followers who had been “jailed for freedom.” Wearing the pin, in pride and defiance, signified a suffragist’s alliance with the more radical branch of the movement and also marked her for vilification by anti-suffragists, who would accuse her of being unpatriotic, even traitorous.
In addition to the press, the fashion industry also took notice. Clothing stores — like Macy’s, Best & Co., Bonwit Teller in New York, and Selfridge’s in London — grasped the retail opportunities of “suffrage marching outfits” and “suffrage blouses” and stylish but comfortable shoes for long demonstrations, advertising their wares in newspapers and suffrage journals. Women’s magazines offered patterns to sew your own suffrage-event attire. Suffrage was good business.
And in the very last battle, the fight for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in the summer of 1920, the opposing armies wore roses of different colors as their uniform insignia — yellow roses for the Suffs, red American Beauty roses for the Antis. The color of the rose on the bosom or buttonhole defined allegiance and created camaraderie — as well as conflict.
Now we’ve entered a new period of political peril and divisive discourse, and color choices are once again emerging as symbolic statements.
When Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit to accept her historic presidential-candidate nomination — in an obvious salute to the suffragists — we witnessed the latest resurgence of suffrage sartorial motifs. Several months later, we saw the Democratic Women’s Caucus express their political defiance by wearing white outfits to President Trump’s State of the Union address at the Capitol. Pantone chose violet as the color of the year for 2018 and justified the choice by pointing to the hue’s heritage as an official suffrage color, a color of women’s empowerment. Artisans on Etsy are creating stylish pieces with woman-power motifs, while the popularity of feminist slogan T-shirts and accessories has once again caught the attention of the fashion industry, making politically spiked apparel good business. We’re looking forward to another chapter in the historic saga of women’s raiment of resistance.
Elaine Weiss’s new book on the suffragists, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight for the Vote (Viking), has just been published.