Dress for votes

Shelley Tobin, Costume Curator Shelley Tobin Costume Curator
Marching Suffragettes c.1908

‘Behold the present-day Suffragette pondering fashions side by side with political problems, for she is an essentially up-to-date being’ (Votes for Women 7 July, 1911)

I’m beginning this month’s blog with a reminder that The Costume Society will be holding their Autumn Study Day at Killerton on Saturday 15 September. All are welcome, members and non-members. The day will provide a chance to explore and discuss fashion and politics, and to see all three exhibitions currently showing at Killerton.

We’re delighted to be welcoming Professor Angela K. Smith (University of Plymouth) to speak, as well as Dr Becky Munford (University of Cardiff) and Amy Towle (Cosprop). After lunch there will be exhibition tours alternating with behind-the-scenes tours, and a chance to see some of Queen Victoria’s clothing up close. Booking for the day is via Eventbrite, please see The Costume Society website for more details.

Here we are, all too soon, nearing the second half of summer and looking forward to autumn and Christmas events at Killerton. It won’t be too long before the leaves are changing colour and we’re happily crunching though the fallen ones. It’s a good time to forward as well as to look back.

Looking back, I’ve really enjoyed being able to share the story of women’s campaign for the right to vote through our collections, and I’m especially grateful to our lenders who have provided some unique material associated with named suffragettes.

" White or cream tussor(e) should if possible be the dominant colour; the purple and green should be introduced where other colour is necessary…If every individual woman 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 popularise the WSPU"
- Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in 'Votes for Women'

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) carefully considered how to use dress and insignia as a way of supporting the cause. Fashion columns, advice about what to wear on marches and at processions, and advertisements for dress and accessories often appear in the pages of Votes for Women and The Suffragette. The first WSPU (suffragette) sashes were created for the organisation in 1908, five years after the organisation was founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Many different ways to show support for the suffrage campaign
Suffragette sash on display
Many different ways to show support for the suffrage campaign

The ‘Votes for Women’ sashes first appeared at the Women’s Sunday march on June 21 1908. The sashes were produced by the firm of Toye, Kenning and Spencer and supplied through the WSPU shops. Designs and fonts changed subtly over time, but the purple, white and green colours of the WSPU remained the same.

Women were encouraged to dress smartly in cream or white for processions and public events during the summer months. White and cream acted as a perfect foil to set off the colours. The sash could be worn at all public demonstrations and gatherings, accompanied by badges, medals and even ties in the colours, like the silk tie on display in the current exhibition.

Local supporter's suffrage items
Suffragette items on display
Local supporter's suffrage items

Norah Ussher, a Devizes suffragette, bought the tie from the Kensington WSPU shop. If you look carefully you should be able to see the WSPU label stitched onto the back.

Ties produced by the W.S.P.U
Image of a tie belonging to a suffragette
Ties produced by the W.S.P.U

For some occasions, suffragettes like Norah and her friends dressed completely in the WSPU colours. The Women’s Pageant of 1908 began with a procession and ended with a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall. 40,000 women took part in the march, while meetings were held all over London.

A similar pageant, the Coronation Procession, was held in June 1911. This spectacular summer event celebrated the coronation of King George and Queen Mary, and involved members of over 40 different suffrage societies, both militant and non-militant, men as well as women. 

A memento from a suffrage march
Part of the front cover of a programme
A memento from a suffrage march

Norah and her companion Miss Abraham carried the Moonraker’s banner representing their Wiltshire home town during the march.  All three, Miss Sainsbury, Miss Abraham and Miss Ussher ‘wore dresses which, combined, made up the Suffragette colours-white, mauve, and green.’

They must have made a picturesque and powerful sight.