Celebrating Women’s Month: Women’s Suffrage and the Fashion of Protest

Celebrating Women’s Month: Women’s Suffrage and the Fashion of Protest

Natalie Lambrelli

The Women’s Suffrage movement began in the middle of the 19th century, reaching peak popularity during World War I. During this time, women began embracing the identity of the “New Woman.” They actively sought education, were employed outside of the home, and participated in sports. Fashion evolved as women’s role in society shifted.

To save fabric during the war and allow women to work comfortably, women’s fashion became simpler, more comfortable, and “more tailored”. Looser silhouettes, the omission of corsets, and rising hemlines allowed for movement. New styles like the Bloomer costume (named after Suffragette Amelia Bloomer) were a catalyst for the later widespread adoption of pants into women’s fashion. 

This contrasted greatly with the impractical and restrictive Victorian-era styles which featured a multitude of ornate fabrics accompanied by bustles, corsets, and hoops to achieve an S-curve silhouette. By 1925 (five years after women earned the right to vote), empire waists, lowered necklines, and slimmer silhouettes signaled the beginning of a more modern era for women.

Victorian Day Dress


Victorian Afternoon Dress

Despite these changes, suffragettes disagreed about what was appropriate for women’s fashion. Anti-fashion suffragettes argued that fashion indicated an “acceptance of female oppression”, restricting women’s potential and perpetuating their subservience to men. However, the majority of suffragettes (including the likes of Susan B. Anthony) were pro-fashion, insisting that fashion was a way for women to embrace and maintain their femininity without giving up the fight for the vote.

During protests, many suffragettes aimed to be the “epitome of stylish femininity.” Typically, they avoided the controversy of wearing pants and clothing with slim silhouettes, so as to not alienate anybody to the cause. Suffragettes were known to wear white dresses accompanied by purple, white, and gold sashes. White symbolized the “purity and high-mindedness” of the Suffrage movement, gold symbolized “light and life”, and purple symbolized loyalty to the United States in order to “combat the idea that women were rebelling against their husbands, country, and proper societal role.” This ensemble can be seen in the portrait of the famous suffragette Christabel Pankhurst.

Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright


During Women’s Month, we recognize and champion the female change makers who have contributed to the modernization of women’s role in society. Shop Repurpose is proud to empower women every day by providing mentorship and job readiness training through our workforce development program. Click here to support the launch of the RENEW Program, launching in July.

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