Dress & the Suffragettes

Postcard, 1909. This postcard bears a shocking caricature of a Suffragette which was seen quite regularly from c.1908. It depicts the Suffragette as a harridan; a vicious, unwomanly woman. When the WSPU instructed their followers to wear stylish and feminine clothes during marches and demonstrations they were fighting this and other unpleasant depictions of them in the media. © Museum of London

The Suffragettes made very good use of dress as part of their campaign. They were aware of the power of clothing to make an immediate impression on the viewer. Rather than fall into the trap of resembling the stereotypical, frumpy and un-feminine women’s rights campaigner so bitingly caricatured in the media, the Suffragettes sought to do quite the opposite. For marches they were encouraged to dress in their smartest clothes and to be the epitome of stylish femininity. They also harnessed the concept of dress uniformity to foster comradeship and belonging within the group. The concept of the Suffragette colours was devised by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the co-editor of Votes for Women magazine. Purple stood for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope. During parades and demonstrations Suffragettes were instructed to wear white with purple and green additions in trimmings and accessories. Ahead of ‘Women’s Sunday’ which took place on the 21st June 1908, the 18th June issue of Votes for Women included a piece on what to wear for the march. It stated:

‘Be guided by the colours in your choice of dress…we have seven hundred banners in purple, white and green. The effect will be very much lost unless the colours are carried out in the dress of every woman in the ranks. White or cream tussore [a type of ‘wild’ silk fabric with an irregular weave which was fashionable at the time] should if possible be the dominant colour, the purple or green should be introduced where other colour is necessary…You may think that this is a small and trivial matter but there is no service that can be considered as small or trivial in this movement. I wish I could impress upon every mind as deeply as I feel myself the importance of popularizing the colours in every way open to us. If every individual in this union would do her part, the colours would become the reigning fashion. And strange as it may seem, nothing would so help to popularize the WSPU…now everyone has simply got to see to it that everywhere our colours may be in evidence.’ (quoted from Diane Atkinson ed., The Suffragettes in Pictures, p.104).

Pair of black cotton stockings hand embroidered in silk with Suffragette colours, c.1908 - 1914. Image by John Chase Photography

We know that some women showed their allegiance to the cause by wearing small accessories or items of jewellery in Suffragette colours. Ernestine Mills, artist, metalworker and enameller produced beautiful pieces of jewellery for members of the WSPU. Other accessories were also sold to further the cause. The Suffragette sash is the most famous of these, but there was also a silk WSPU motoring scarf. A less obvious choice was the stocking. In the Olive Matthews collection at Chertsey Museum we have a pair of stockings which have been hand embroidered with the Suffragette motto in the colours of the cause. Other pairs of these survive and they may have been sold to raise money for the WSPU. The embroidery is located only towards the ankle, and since women’s skirts were still relatively long, this meant that the wearer could choose whether to reveal her support for the cause or not, depending on the company she was in. The concept of revealing ones ankles was also associated with newer ideas of fashion and dress reform at this time, so these stockings also carry with them connotations of daring and modernity – all qualities that a young suffrage activist might well want to be associated with.