Shedding light on Killerton’s suffragette day dress

Day dress with peacock feather motifs c.1908

This woollen day dress is currently on show in the exhibition 'Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote' at Killerton in Devon.

With its fine construction, Arts and Crafts embroidery and natural waist, it exemplifies the artistic style of dress that was worn by some suffragettes in the early part of the twentieth century.

Made by a suffragette?

During the campaign for women's suffrage, members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) were known to wear dresses in the artistic style, similar to our day dress. In fact, it closely resembles examples made by Amy Kotze, a suffragette dressmaker and highly-skilled embroiderer for Liberty & Co.

A day dress in the artistic style, c.1908 / Killerton NT 1363253
Day dress
A day dress in the artistic style, c.1908 / Killerton NT 1363253

In 1909, Kotze contributed pieces of her clothing to the Women's Exhibition to raise funds for the 'Votes for Women' campaign. Contemporary photographs of dress stalls at the exhibition, including the one likely run by Kotze, show Artistic style dresses strikingly similar to our indigo example.

Kotze also made dresses for the Pankhursts, the family of women who spearheaded the campaign for women's suffrage. 

Dame Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) by Ethel Wright, oil on canvas, exhibited 1909
Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright, exhibited 1909
Dame Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) by Ethel Wright, oil on canvas, exhibited 1909

In Ethel Wright's famous portrait of Christabel Pankhurst (1880–1958) from 1909, Pankhurst is shown in strident form, her suffragette sash crossing her artistic dress. 

Exquisitely constructed

While we do not know for sure if the dress at Killerton was made by Amy Kotze, it is clear that it was made by a dressmaker of great skill. It is extremely well-constructed of napped wool and it is carefully hand-embroidered with a design of peacock feathers on the collar, yoke, belt, wrists and accompanying bag.

The Artistic style and the Aesthetic movement

This Killerton day dress exemplifies the artistic style of dress worn well into the 1900s. This style rejected mainstream Victorian fashion for tiny corseted waists, hoop skirts and unwieldly bustles. Instead, it embraced long, flowing gowns that complemented the natural waist.

Fuelled largely by concerns for health and comfort, artistic style dresses were heavily influenced by the Aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, which championed natural beauty and simplicity of style. In fashion, advocates opted for embroidery and smocking over fussy ornamentation, and for natural colours derived from vegetable dyes over synthetic hues that had previously reigned supreme.

Jane 'Jeanie' Elizabeth Hughes, Mrs Nassau John Senior by George Frederic Watts, 1857-1858 / Wightwick Manor NT 1288949
Jane 'Jeanie' Elizabeth Hughes, Mrs Nassau John Senior by George Frederic Watts
Jane 'Jeanie' Elizabeth Hughes, Mrs Nassau John Senior by George Frederic Watts, 1857-1858 / Wightwick Manor NT 1288949

In one  of the most iconic portraits of the Aesthetic movement, Jane 'Jeanie' Nassau Senior wears a dress in the Artistic style. She is depicted watering a plant, leaning forward elegantly, with one knee on a chair and a one hand on a table for balance. Her dress – with its apparent lack of corsetry, and loose, draping fabric –  easily accomodates this movement. The shot silk fabric is a rich peacock blue, similar to the Killerton day dress, a favourite colour of the Aesthetic movement. 

Peacocks and the Aesthetic movement

It wasn’t only the colour of peacocks that Aesthetes favoured. The peacock feather was closely associated with the Aesthetic style and was used by artists like James McNeill Whistler and William Morris in their designs. Like the sunflower, the peacock feather became an iconic Aesthetic motif.

A motif of hand-embroidered peacock feathers
A motif of hand-embroidered peacock feathers
A motif of hand-embroidered peacock feathers

The bold and striking peacock embroidery links the Killerton dress to the Aesthetic movement, while the overall style and structure reflects the fashion worn by some suffragettes in the early 20th century.

'Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote' continues until 4 November 2018.