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Soldiers in petticoats – International Women's day

Selvedge

Nicola Donovan pins down the subversive style of the Suffragettes. Although for some the word ‘suffragette’ might bring to mind images of Edwardian, middle class ladies chained to railings, or the horrific, grainy pictures of Emily Wilding Davison suffering fatal injuries from the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, this resistance movement also operated as a sophisticated political organisation. Actually called by its members the ‘Women’s Social and Political Union’, who were themselves dubbed ‘Suffragettes’ by the Daily Mail, this organisation chose its colours as a means to covertly, and also overtly, indicate solidarity. The colours, which were chosen to represent dignity and freedom (purple), purity in public and private life (white) and hope and newness (green), created a sense of unity, which was something that many women of the time had not yet experienced. v4e Expression of this new commonality amongst women appeared in the form of textile crafts and is particularly visible in the embroidered, stencilled and appliquéd banners that identified ‘chapters’ of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The banners were used to promote The Causein processions and marches, or used as templates for printed leaflets. The collaboratively produced banners would carry beautifully crafted slogans such as ‘Votes for Women’, ‘Believe and You Will Conquer’ and the notorious call for violent protest – ‘Deeds, not Words’. Some banners were even woven and there are some intriguing examples of these held in the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics (LSE) Suffragette banner collection. suffragettes_england_1908 The purple, white and green emblematic colours tended to be worn as accessories, especially among working-class women who could not afford the white dresses worn by wealthier suffragettes, or their beautiful amethyst, emerald and pearl jewellery. However, some women wore an all-over version of their allegiance to ‘the cause’ as exemplified by the suffragette dress made by Leonora Cohen, who not only wore it to the Arts Society Ball in 1914, but also sealed her notoriety by smashing the case that held the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. The garment is a simple, kimono style and modelled on the lines of aesthetic dress, which was intended to allow freedom from the constraints of conventional women’s clothing, such as tight corsets and bulky, or hobbled skirts. Suffragette medals Cohen’s dress is of course green, purple and white, and is splashed across its front with the words ‘Suffragette’ and ‘Justice’, along with the initials ‘W.S.P.U.’ Together with the garment’s loose form this bold declaration of resistance and indeed allegiance, would have made a radical and perhaps scandalous statement at a time when women were expected to behave otherwise. Speaking to Jess Cartner-Morley in The Guardian, Donna Loveday, co-curator of the Women Fashion Power exhibition at the Design Museum, points out that the suffragettes ‘chose to embrace femininity in their dress, because they were monstered for being unnatural and mannish, and to counterbalance that they had a deliberate tactic of dressing in a conventional, ladylike way. There’s a sense of power coming from embodying your gender, not denying it.’
International Women's Day 8 March 2016 This is an extract from Nicola Donovan's article in issue 67 of Selvedge.


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