At the Dressing/Undressing the Victorians: Reading Clothes in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Contexts Conference at the University of Chester (28th March 2015), Fiona McGrath’s paper on ‘Discourses of Fashion: Articulating a Subversive Feminist Voice through Clothing at the fin de siècle’ got me thinking about the political dress of the suffragettes. A paper on suffragette dress was obviously appropriate for – and yet surprisingly absent from – the conference, although McGrath’s discussion of the symbolic language of dress in relation to New Women of the late nineteenth century was certainly related. The daring, stylish and highly visible suffragettes demonstrated a strong sense of the importance and power of dress and self-representation by creating designs, colour-ways, garments and accessories to support their fight for female emancipation.
The suffragettes used clothing as a form of communication rather than simply a form of feminine decoration or ornamentation; instead of using dress to attract and gratify the male gaze, they used it to challenge patriarchy. Not only did nineteenth-century feminists (New Women, suffragists, suffragettes) wear clothes that were practical, functional and convenient – facilitating physical freedom in defiance of restrictive feminine fashions featuring tight lacing and crinoline – but they also used these clothes to make explicit statements about female liberation. Dress became a central element of early feminist propaganda: skirts featuring slogans were worn to advertise suffragette literature and events; ‘Votes for Women’ sashes were worn across the body; symbolic jewellery was worn in the distinctive WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) colours of purple, white and green (representing royalty, purity and hope); and hand-made banners carried by women on marches were almost extensions of their clothing. The suffragettes realised the potential of dress to make powerful and subversive political statements.
By 1909 the WSPU was commissioning a wide range of badges, brooches, pendants and pins as fundraising and promotional items. Suffragette artists used prison-themed symbolic imagery to promote the women’s cause, and suffragettes often wore pieces of chain as pins or brooches to represent their oppression. A tin badge designed by Sylvia Pankhurst (1909-10) for the suffragette campaign depicts a barefoot woman in a loose dress breaking free through a gate, carrying a ‘Votes for Women’ streamer. The Holloway Prison Brooch also designed by Sylvia Pankhurst (1909-10) comprises a portcullis symbol of the House of Commons, superimposed with a broad arrow (typical of those marked on prison clothing), which was presented to suffragette ex-prisoners (often arrested for disorderly behaviour) and worn by them with great pride. Dolls dressed as suffragette prisoners were made and sold to raise funds for the militant suffragette campaign, and a special medal was made as a mark of recognition for those suffragettes who served prison sentences for militancy. However, a more restrained type of Edwardian dress was worn by some women’s suffrage leaders in a deliberate strategy to present themselves as rational and ‘ladylike’ in the face of popular negative stereotypes of suffragettes as hysterical, violent, manly and vulgar.
The suffragettes further illustrate McGrath’s argument that dress is a material signifier which renders rich information about – and provides a more overt description of – women’s characters, beliefs and aspirations. Dress was central to early feminist iconography, the self-fashioning of suffragettes, and the effectiveness of the women’s rights movement. More material evidence for this can be found at the Women, Fashion, Power exhibition at the Design Museum in London.
(The conference organisers, Deborah, Louisa and Sarah, would like to thank Lucy Ella for her contribution to this blog.)