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.