Viktoria Szanto looks into the fashion world of the late 19th and early 20th century, especially those skirts, dresses and trouser that helped women to win the vote.




Downton Abbey: Sybil turns up to breakfast in her glorious harem pants with so much sass. You gasp for breath, and manage to release a strange, high-pitched noise. The trousers are a copy of an actual pair made by Paul Poiret, a controversial figure, considered scandalous by some. He revolutionized women’s clothing by omitting the much loathed corset and the full skirt altogether. According to Wikipedia: “he was so famous that H. H. Asquith invited him to show his designs at 10 Downing Street. The cheapest garment at the exhibition cost 30 guineas, double the annual salary of a scullery maid”.

Indeed, the first decades of the 20th century marked an important change of attitude towards women. The term ’new woman’ was introduced – not completely without a derogative tone. The new woman was fearless, she redefined her place in society and overcame the ancient gender roles, or at least she tried. But a sense of fear and confusion surrounded this term at the time. Traditionalists still believed that women were of an inferior species and were to refrain from making responsible decisions. Strangely enough, this thought occurred at the same time as the first generation of women to attend universities began to graduate. Women started to work, they did sports, they rode bikes – rarely though, because whenever they did public outrage followed – but they could not vote. In the Edwardian era the only people not allowed to vote were criminals, poor people, lunatics and women.

This changing lifestyle also brought about a need for more practical and more comfortable clothes. Wasp waist, as they called it, was very much in fashion at the time (I guess fashion promoted unhealthy and unreal body image back then too, huh?). The corset – fashion’s secret weapon – reduced women’s waist measurements to 40-45 centimetres, causing serious medical problems. When you read in books of the era about women fainting and desperately waving their fans, it is not a fashionable gesture; their lungs were so compressed that they actually couldn’t breathe. Another fashionable item at the time was the crinolette. Like her big sister, the crinolin (which had mostly disappeared by the turn of the century), the crinolette was a steel, cage-like structure worn under the skirt that created the illusion of a bodacious Nicki Minaj butt. Apart from the fact that it was hard to move around in it, the crinolin was also very light, acting as a sail in wind – ladies flying around during windy weather were not an uncommon sight. 





These are the circumstances in which the suffragettes come into the picture. The movement is most commonly associated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by the Pankhurst women: mother Emmeline and daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Their methods of protest ranged from peaceful tactics (hunger strikes) to more militant actions (letter bombs, vandalism). They also chained themselves to railways with belts that formerly belonged to lunatics in a mental asylum. The only way the policemen could detach them was to lay hands on them, which was seen as very distasteful at the time.

Contrary to what the press wanted people to believe, suffragettes dressed in a very feminine way. They wore flowing A-line skirts (generally ankle length), blouses with high collars, and straight coats, all in dark colours to emphasise the seriousness of their cause. But their clothes needed to fit their lifestyle – they had to be easy to move in and warm enough for their marches in the winter. As the movement expanded, a signature suffragette uniform – first presented in Hyde Park – emerged: white, shorter, loose-fitted dresses without corsets and shoes with lower heels that today we would call ‘kitten heels’. Much like political parties, the suffragettes developed a colour scheme. Their colours were green (symbolising fertility and hope), white (purity) and violet (dignity); the first letters read together make: Give Women the Vote. Even the smallest details of their outfit matched this colour scheme; wearing jewellery – especially brooches – was very popular, and (much like the cocarde in the French Revolution) showed sympathy for the movement.

A play on the stereotype that suffragettes are miserable and manly shapes popular perception of today’s feminists as well. Never before the era of the suffragettes – or ever since, for that matter – has fashion been so controversial and so widely used to convey a political message. Suffragettes genuinely changed the way women lived and dressed in the early 20th century. Sadly, their true ambition – getting the right to vote – was only fulfilled after the First World War, since inconveniently, only men who had been residents for at least 12 months could vote until then, crossing out most of the soldiers fighting overseas. But that’s another story.



Viktoria Szanto



Credits: Wikimedia Commons