I was lucky to be able to attend a presentation given by Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox at Colorado State’s Avenir Museum called “Fashioning Women’s Rights: Suffragist’s Political Style and its Visual Legacies”. The talk was given in concert with an exhibit on suffragist fashion.
The exhibit featured a collection of dresses worn by women in the eras both leading up to and during the Women’s Suffrage movement. See how fashion contributed to one of the most successful political campaigns ever in the United States.
Bloomers and the Civil War Era (1850s-1860s)
Cage crinolines were designed in some part to increase a woman’s physical distance from others when out in public, and the corsets not only restricted movement but may have contributed to physical ailments. The Bloomer costume was designed without a corset and with separated (bifurcated) skirts, allowing for greater freedom of movement.
Unfortunately, there was no example of the bloomer costume as part of the exhibit, but the above dresses are from the same era in which bloomers were first designed and worn.
The public response to bloomers was quite clear: they were ugly, ridiculous, and, worst of all, un-feminine. They first appeared in 1851 and were largely considered a “fashion failure”.
It is important to remember that the crux of the women’s suffrage campaign was to convince men to give women the vote, therefore the marketing and message had to appeal to these men. After the failure of the bloomers and women who were ridiculed for “trying to look like men”, the campaigners took on a different strategy: that women can be feminine, beautiful, and independent.
Women were now quickly realizing that their message would be more palatable if delivered by an attractive messenger. This was aided by the fact that many of the suffragists were among society’s elite, and they could afford to maintain the latest in high fashion.
During this period, well-dressed women wore tight-fitting bodices with several small buttons down the front. The dress pictured above also features the distinctive bustle skirt of the 1880s. The front is a fitted, gored skirt with gathered or pleated fullness at the back.
Elizabeth “Libby” Coy
As the mass consumer economy grew in the 1890s, so too did the trend towards white wedding dresses and larger, more elaborate wedding ceremonies. This example is stylish and on-trend but not overly showy. Society wedding gowns often featured longer trains, pearl beading, and full-length puffed sleeves. The size of the puff at the top of Elizabeth’s sleeve is restrained for the period.
“May we remember that the ideal is not built in a day.”Elizabeth Coy, 1884, at her graduation ceremony.
The gown pictured above was worn by Elizabeth “Libbie” Coy to her wedding on June 19, 1890. She was one of the first three people to graduate from Colorado State University (then Colorado Agricultural College) and the first woman to graduate from ANY higher learning institution in the entire state of Colorado.
You can see in this two piece ensemble from 1895 that the skirt has lost the bustle, which was more characteristic of the 1880s. There is instead more fullness in the leg-o-mutton sleeves. It was becoming increasingly acceptable for women to be employed or to attend higher education, and those same women often opted for very respectable and demure apparel to thwart any accusations of being “un-womanly”.
The Turn of the Century
This era introduces the shirtwaist, a top cut with a full, blousy front worn above a flat-fronted skirt. They were usually white or off-white and made in lightweight cottons or linens.
Women are now wearing less undergarments and a more streamlined silhouette. The desirable S-shape of the previous decade is beginning to disappear. Hemlines are shorter, hitting around the ankle. Women of this era want to be seen as modern, innovative, and rational, and eschew the “frivolous” fashions of before.
Pockets were just as desirable then as they are today. By 1910 it became a sort of feminist “metaphor” to have lots of pockets in your dresses.
“An idea that is driven home to the mind through the eye produces a more striking and lasting impression than any that goest through the ear.”Glenna Smith Tinnin, The Woman’s Journal, 1913
The leaders of the movement knew they needed a marketable, recognizable “brand”. The “uniform” of women’s suffrage was focused around color to show unity, rather than requiring the purchase of any specific style or piece of clothing. In fact, the marches of the suffragettes were far more colorful affairs than the images we have make them seem! Campaigning tactics included lots of color and pageantry. This is politics done in a different way: through fashion.
This year, 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. In the decade following its passage, the fashionable silhouette changed dramatically. Dressed became unfitted and short, and a straight, boyish figure was the ideal.
- CSU Magazine: The enduring legacy of Libby Coy-Lawrence
- FIT NYC Fashion History Timeline
- The Woman Citizen, vol. 1, 1917
- Palczewski, Catherine H. Postcard Archive. University of Northern Iowa. Cedar Falls, IA.
- A huge thank you to Dr. Rabinovitch-Fox for her wonderful presentation. Be on the lookout for her upcoming book, “Dressed for Freedom”, coming in 2021.