Suffragist Fashion Reenters the Political Mainstream
A note on terminology: Throughout this piece I will use the term “suffragist” to refer to women who participated in the movement for women’s suffrage. The term “suffragette” is more commonly used, but this term technically refers only to women who were part of the militant branch of the suffrage movement. “Suffragist” includes those involved in non-militant participation, as well as their militant counterparts.
I wrote about the use of dress and textiles within the Scottish women’s suffrage movement for my Master’s thesis. When working on a project this size, it’s easy to feel as if the topic is permeating all aspects of your life. It was summer, and my cohort was finished with class: the only task left was to write our theses. I was living, eating, and breathing women’s suffrage, and I saw connections between my research and the contemporary everywhere. However, I began to realize that this wasn’t simply because of the pressure I was under to reach my deadline. It was because this research was so relevant and so heavy with implications for how we make sense of fashion and the political today.
Part of this topic’s relevance is that the suffrage movement is often referenced in contemporary discussions on women’s rights and feminist history, as well as more generally in popular culture.
Most people have some historic knowledge of the movement, and the pageantry and spectacle at which the suffragists so excelled creates a captivating visual for study or inspiration. The numerous “I voted” stickers that decorate the grave of Susan B. Anthony in Rochester attest to the scale of the connection felt by contemporary women to these figures of history.
My only opportunity to connect my research to the contemporary came early in the dissertation process. Our program delivered presentations on the initial findings of our research and our thoughts as to where our research was headed and the challenges we might face. As I was working on my presentation, I felt there was no way I could present my topic without connecting it to the recent events surrounding the film Suffragette (2015).
The film received intense criticism for its whitewashing of the suffrage movement in Great Britain, and within this larger criticism there was another layer of controversy: At a photoshoot promoting the film, Meryl Streep and other cast members wore t-shirts printed with the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” This phrase, spoken by one of the leaders of the movement in England, Emmaline Pankhurst, was seen by many as an inappropriate choice, given the connotations of the words “rebel” and “slave.” From here, it’s not a far jump to another “feminist t-shirt” controversy that occurred less than a year earlier: the “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts, produced by feminist charity The Fawcett Society in collaboration with Elle Magazine and British retailer Whistles. Reports circulated that the t-shirts, which retailed for £45, were made by women in a Mauritian sweatshop who earned 62 pence an hour (The Fawcett Society has rejected these claims). Is it feminist to buy and wear a political t-shirt that comes at the exploitation of female labor? Both these examples show how an individual decision to make a sartorial statement can be problematic within the larger history and context.
Because of my research, I was primed to make connections between the clothing/politics of the suffrage movement and contemporary events, as seen in my inclusion of these examples in my research presentation. As I followed the election cycle from Scotland, the conversation linking the suffragists to the contemporary went mainstream in America, primarily in discussion of Hillary Clinton's wardrobe choices and culminating in full force on Election Day. Style from the early 1900s was "suddenly in again," and aspects of my dissertation topic were being covered in major media outlets. It felt like the ideal time to be making connections between historic and contemporary fashion, especially in regards to the clothing of the suffragists.
Nowhere was the relevance of my research more obvious than on January 21st, 2017: the date of Women’s Marches around the world. In the post-march coverage, I saw numerous images of groups of white women dressed as suffragists. I understand the appeal, in both choosing to dress this way and why it “works” at a performative event like a march. Many of these women carried signs that read “Different century, same problems,” or something to a similar effect. Dressing in Edwardian garb and holding a sign like this is a visually striking way to immediately bring to mind how far we have and have not yet come. With all the references to the women of the suffrage movement during the election cycle, wearing the distinctive purple, green, and white and “Votes for Women” sashes of the movement was a way to connect to that history and the sacrifices these women made, one hundred years ago.
What was missing from all these suffrage movement references both before and after the election, however, was the simple fact that the American suffrage movement left women behind, specifically women of color. Though the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, the right for African-Americans to vote was frequently lost through state constitutional loopholes. In the years following 1920, southern blacks, both men and women, remained virtually disfranchised, as southern governments circumvented the amendment. Indigenous American men and women weren’t allowed to vote until 1924 with the passage of the Snyder Act, but because the Constitution left it to individual states to decide who could and couldn’t vote, it would take decades for indigenous Americans to be able to vote in all states (New Mexico was the last state to enfranchise indigenous Americans, in 1962). Asian Americans have been disenfranchised throughout United States history by laws that denied citizenship to Asian immigrants, therefore making them ineligible to vote. For example, Chinese Americans were not allowed to become citizens until 1943.
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn highlights the larger issue in her text African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote (1998). She writes that the realization of women’s suffrage was a success of democratic principles, in that the right of all women to vote was acknowledged in the Constitution. However, it was not a solution to societal problems: “The need to complete the goals of the early woman suffrage advocates - to bring all women into a position of first-class citizenship - remained a challenge to Americans long after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.”
It is this continuing challenge that makes the wearing of suffrage outfits to an intersectional women’s march (a march whose initial platform was criticized for lacking diversity, among other things) a sartorial decision worth questioning. The history of voting rights in our country deserves so much more attention that I have room for here, as I outline only the briefest of facts. It’s a history that white women especially need to consistently engage with, as we remember that Susan B. Anthony was against the participation of black women in the suffrage movement, and black women were asked to walk at the end of the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington D.C., - the one that has been referenced so frequently in discussions around the Women’s March of January 21th. As the one hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment approaches, we have to remember that this anniversary includes only some of us.
It is in this spirit that I would urge fellow white women to question our motives when deciding to dress as a suffragist for a march or wear a feminist t-shirt (more problematic t-shirts continue to emerge)—are we referencing this movement in all its complicated history, or just in the limited way that suits our personal conscience? I’ve been excited to see the topic of suffrage fashion getting mainstream coverage, but it is essential that we remember the historic context in which these fashions were situated. It is my hope that we can learn from our past and work towards building a more inclusive movement for gender equality...and I’ll be excited to see what sartorial statements this new movement makes.
 Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 160.
 Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 163.