How the suffragettes used fashion to further their cause

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Cally Blackman
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The suffragettes deliberately chose conventional and classically feminine styles. Why? Propaganda, explains Cally Blackman, author and lecturer at Central Saint Martins.     

Hiding in plain sight is a military strategy usually associated with terrorists and spies, not respectable Edwardian women. But we all know appearances can be deceptive and many of the suffragettes marching in flowery picture hats and ostrich feather boas were involved in one of the most violent guerilla campaigns ever mounted in this country.

Dress is a powerful form of communication. No-one knew this better than the media-savvy leadership of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The suffragettes wanted to avoid accusations of eccentricity or spinsterish masculinity. They recognised their best chance of winning the vote was to align themselves, at least outwardly, with Edwardian ideals of femininity, even if they were engaging in defiantly unladylike activities under the radar.

The WSPU was also canny enough to learn from the mistakes of previous generations. The fight for female emancipation had been going on for decades. In the 19th century, the drive for equality became closely associated with the dress reform movement, which sought to free women from the constriction of a Victorian silhouette, with its attendant corsetry and crinolines. 

In 1851, American women’s rights campaigner Amelia Bloomer introduced her eponymous suit, a loose tunic worn over baggy trousers. It was only taken up by a few proto- feminists but the short-lived Bloomer suit was a gift for the media, thereafter used in cartoons to signify the stereotypical ‘strong-minded woman’ along with thick glasses, galoshes, cigar and ‘42in waist’. Trouser-wearing females were disturbing subversives, fuelling paranoia about the perceived dangers of gender equality. Which is why, as Sylvia Pankhurst noted,
“Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford,
 rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing harm to the cause.” 

A wood engraving of Amelia Bloomer in 1851

They pushed this clever idea to all interested women. In 1908, the suffragette newspaper Votes For Women declared, “The suffragette of today is dainty and precise in her dress,” and five years later, sellers of The Suffragette newspaper were requested to “dress themselves in their smartest clothes”. Even when engaging in unlawful activities, they turned out well: a photo of three militants preparing to chain themselves to the railings of a government building shows them in tailor-made suits and coats, hats with feathers and one ‘subversive’ in fox fur and muff.

Photographs from the time show that they achieved their aim of looking elegant for political purposes. The suffragettes left extensive archives of images, many taken by Christina Broom, the UK’s first woman press photographer. Broom’s images are doubly interesting because the gaze of both photographer and subject is female, an exchange between equals (one would imagine she sympathised with the cause, or at least empathised with her subjects). 

Particularly conscious of their appearance were Mrs Pankhurst and her three daughters, who were very much in the public eye. Emmeline and eldest daughter Christabel became international celebrities, as much admired for their beauty and elegance as their dedication.

Second daughter Sylvia, who had trained at 
the Royal College of Art, designed much of the visual merchandising (as we would call it now) and decoration at suffragette events, but it was Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, business manager of the WSPU and editor of Votes For Women, who created the brand identity that was so successful in gaining members and publicity. 

The three colours she chose: purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope, were worn “as a duty and a privilege” and were applied to a range of clothing. Christabel is depicted in a green satin dress in her portrait
 by the artist Ethel Wright and “costumes designed in an arrangement of purple, white
 and green” were worn at Women’s Sunday,
 the WSPU’s first meeting, in Hyde Park on
 21 June 1908.

Attended by 300,000, The Times reported, “Every woman walking in the procession wore the purple, white and green either in favours pinned to the breast, or
 in the trimmings of a hat, in belt ribbons 
or in shoulder sashes.” 

A photograph of Christabel Pankhurt, co-founder and leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, taken by Christina Broom

On important occasions they would have looked like an advancing army: women in white, marching. ‘Concerning Dress’, a regular fashion feature in Votes For Women, decreed that on the most important occasions, all members of the Union should wear the full-dress uniform, a white frock for better visibility with regalia and colours. For lesser and outdoor events, “We shall have to fall back upon those shades of purple and green which tone with the belts and regalia and badge in the tricolour”. 

Skirts in these colours could be worn with white golf jerseys and hats of purple or green. A silver and enamel Holloway brooch by Sylvia, featuring the portcullis of the House 
of Commons and a convict arrow, was presented to activists who had spent time in jail. Those who had endured imprisonment or hunger strike displayed their special badges with pride.

These were clever choices: the adaptability of the look making it a successful propaganda tool. The lace-trimmed dresses, high-necked blouses and neat skirts we associate with Edwardians were easily modified. Long linen, gabardine or wool coats and gauzy motoring scarves that kept vast picture hats on the head were commonplace: all could be trimmed or made in the colours of the cause. 

A jacket and skirt suit had long been associated with ‘The New Woman’, a mythical figure who emerged at the turn of the century. She was a woman
 of independent spirit who might have attended university and possibly had a job, although Christabel, with a first-class law degree from the University of Manchester, was unable 
to practise because of her gender. Many graduate suffragettes wore their academic gowns and mortarboards on parade. 

Suffragette stand at The Women’s Exhibition, London, 1909     

More and more women began to take up the colours, if only by wearing a beaded necklace in purple, white and green, a brooch picked out in semi-precious coloured stones, or a tin badge with Emmeline’s image. Even a pair of silk stockings embroidered with tricolour flags and ‘Votes For Women’ could be flashed at other women to signal fellowship. (One such pair is on display at Chertsey Museum, Surrey.) 

From 1910, the shop at the Women’s Press headquarters on Charing Cross Road – the WSPU’s publishing house, just off Oxford Street – sold “scarves in various shades of purple as well as white muslin summer blouses and among the almost unending variety of bags, belts and more are the ‘Emmeline’ and ‘Christabel’ bags and ‘Pethick’ tobacco pouch”, as reported in Votes For Women.

Stores including Selfridges, Liberty and jewellers Mappin & Webb soon caught on. In return for revenue from advertising in Votes For Women and, later, The Suffragette, the Women’s Press published lists of suppliers of suffragette-related pieces. Peter Robinson of Oxford Street (now Topshop) sold “dress materials, blouses, princess dresses, costumes and gauze scarves for motoring” in the colours, while Debenham 
& Freebody made available knitted sports coats with caps to match. There were even comfortable corsets for those “marching and speaking”. 

Emmeline Pankhurst with daughters Christabel and Sylvia, London, 1911

Selfridges was one of the most supportive retailers: Harry Gordon Selfridge, who had very modern ideas, refused to press charges against “the young lady who broke one of the store’s famous windows”. A 1910 advert proclaimed: “Fashionable young women are flocking to the store for delicate tea dresses and that most powerful symbol of female emancipation: 
red lipstick. As the first department store to 
sell lipstick, powder and rouge, Selfridges is leading the way for the country’s suffragettes.” (American suffragettes also embraced red lips: Elizabeth Arden once dashed out of her office to hand out tubes of it to marching women.)

All of this meant the suffragettes created an incredibly strong visual presence. And while we can’t appreciate the colourful spectacle presented en masse as commercial photography was almost entirely monochrome, their presence was felt – on the streets and in stores. And it was something that never faltered.

From 1913, surveillance photos of suffragette inmates at Holloway exercising in the yard were taken by the Home Office. Despite obvious emaciation and weakness brought about by her hunger strike (she is supported on either side), a photograph of Alice Hall shows her in a large picture hat with a flourish of ostrich feathers. This was the dark side of the struggle: even within the walls of a prison yard, far from public gaze, these women did not, or could not, relax. The controlled image of the radical suffragettes reassured the public and helped them present a united front. It also helped them live on through history. 

Say ‘suffragette’ and what do you see? Long skirt, high-collared blouse and a tricolour sash reading ‘Votes For Women’. Little did they know they would remain the ultimate example of sartorial branding a century later.

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.  

Main image: Sarah Brimley for Stylist. Other images: Rex Features