Thursday, 2 April 2015

Suffragette Dress by Lucy Ella Hawkins

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 si├Ęcle’ 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.)

Jane Austen and Costume Dramas in Oswestry

I had a wonderful time in Oswestry recently. The Literature Festival held in March 2015 attracted many people to its various events and was clearly a great success. I had been asked to talk about Jane Austen, Clothing and the Costume Drama, a topic which is close to my own research interests. I asked members of the audience to comment on their own responses to Austen's novels, Regency dress, and the various film and television adaptations of Austen's work. I received many fascinating comments and here is a selection:
Jane Austen is ‘someone to return to again and again. An author to learn from. Regency clothing is wonderful and allows the characters a freedom which is in many ways lacking from Victorian characters. Your talk gave a thought-provoking new perspective.’ (Sheelagh)
‘The costumes are much of the appeal of the televised dramas. Lovely idea for a talk.’ (Carol)
Lydia, Lizzie and Jane
(from the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice)

‘I have enjoyed all of JA’s books and most adaptations of her novels. I find the strength of character of her heroines particularly appealing and relevant to today’s women. [Regency] clothing is light, allowing more freedom of movement and the empire line does cover a multitude of sins! I enjoyed the talk very much.’ (Pam)
‘I prefer reading the novels and wing my imagination. I feel more comfortable with “period” costume being as accurate as possible. The talk was quite illuminating, explaining the subtleties of costume and its influence.’ (Gwen)
‘For me Jane Austen was one of the first women writers to give women a brain! She actually made domesticity interesting. [I find] the soft fabric and free moving Empire line dresses appealing. Loved the talk, fascinated by the idea of the “Bronteisation” of Austen’s novels in film adaptations.’ (Carole)
The 2005 film adaptation where Lizzie and Darcy resemble Cathy and Heathcliff!
Regency fashions ‘are feminine, modest and elegant, a bit like the manners of the time. Your talk has made me feel I should revisit these novels. Fascinating and entertaining talk. So refreshing to hear a not entirely purely literary approach.’ (Rosemary)
‘Jane Austen is one of the very few authors that I reread . I have enjoyed some of the adaptations but always prefer the books. Yes, I think the style of clothes is very important – particularly in the films. They are obviously “Costume Dramas”. I loved your talk! It was very entertaining as well as informative.’ (Maureen)
‘I love the references to everyday life’ in Austen’s novels. The costumes in adaptations ‘reflect the lives of “young ladies” of the period – very feminine, rather sedentary, in many ways impractical and no protection from the weather.’ (Barbara)
Marianne being rescued by Colonel Brandon in the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility
‘Equally enjoy reading the novels and watching adaptations. Always look forward to “escaping” into her world when the adaptations are on TV. I think accuracy of detail very important for enjoyment – I don’t enjoy Hollywood treatment. Love the femininity [of Regency costumes] it looks comfortable to wear. Loved the enthusiasm you have for your subject.’ (Cathryn)
‘Regency costume in adaptations are appealing if they do not detract from the story but complement the story. Very informative talk.’ (Carol)
‘Love the novels. Adaptations are of variable quality with the 1995 P&P top in my opinion, Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson comes a near second. Liked the related Lost in Austen and Bridget Jones. For a short time women’s dress was “natural”, without corsets and shoes were flat. Sad that it was so short lived. Well balanced and fascinating talk.’ (Justine)
I read the whole set of novels in the sixth form and have gone back to them at intervals ever since. My main interest as a teacher of history is how the novels illuminate my understanding of the period. I enjoy the strong female characters and the dry humour. I am interested in the history of costume and did stage costume for college performances. I related to your comment about “real clothes from a wardrobe”. Brilliant! Thank you for agreeing to talk to us.’ (Margaret)

Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Persuasion

‘I enjoy Jane Austen’s observations of women and their social standing and her use of language is superb. [Costume in adaptations] brings to life characters, illustrating the differences between the Bennet girls and the Bingley sisters and their social standing. I liked the fact that you made the point that modern adaptations, although not always accurate, made people read Jane Austen’s books. It did for me, but the adaptation was Persuasion with Amanda Root’. (Linda)
Thank you to all of you who came to my talk, asked such interesting questions, and provided comments for this blog!
Professor Deborah Wynne