Title of Work


Document Type


Publication/Presentation Date

September 2020


The Symbolism of Women’s Suffrage Dress: Suits of subversion or paragons of persuasion? I am a professional apparel designer who has worked both in the clothing industry as well as in academia. My passion is creating patterns which I then use to cut and construct amazing designs. Recently I began researching historic garment design and construction which led me to creating historically inspired recreations of era specific designs. This new-found creative outlet results in the additional benefit of being able to be used for educational purposes by bringing historic dress alive for our students. The research behind these designs as well as the creative skills, have enabled me to use these projects as my personal creative scholarship as well. I began this historic recreation project after learning that St. Kate’s was collaborating with TPT, and a local artist (Leslie Barlow) through the Integrated Learning Series: Women's voting rights, systemic injustices and the work of systemic change. Having always been a passionate feminist, the open scope and potential for learning around women’s struggles to gain equal representation, instantly drew me to the project. I remember marching for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) between 1974-1980 in Chicago where I grew up. Initially I researched styling, materials, and construction methods of the 1901-1910 Edwardian period, following as closely to these standards as possible. The ensemble begins with a “combination” (a chemise top attached to knee-length bifurcated legs that are open at the crotch from front to back) of lightweight cotton, which is then enclosed in a double layer boned cotton coutil corset with a padded pigeon-chested shaped bustline and a padded bum pillow creating the distinctive “S-shaped” silhouette popular at the time. Garters are satin covered and hold up knit stockings. The next layer is a medium-weight cotton “Gibson girl” blouse with lace cutouts throughout the body and sleeves. A long asymmetrically pleated white wool skirt sits at a raised waist level and shows just the tips of calf-height white low-heeled boots. The tailored white wool jacket is a long double-breasted asymmetrical design with contrasting silk lapels and cuffs, closing with silk braided frogs. The ensemble is topped off with an oversized straw hat decorated in flowers and ribbon. Over the jacket, is a sash reading “Votes for Women” in the colors of the suffrage movement white, purple, and gold. These colors symbolized purity of purpose, loyalty, and hope. Women protesting for equal voting representation would have dressed in their finest, showing themselves to be pillars of respectability rather than the shrews their opponents tried to paint them as. White suits also made a striking image as they marched in the streets around the country especially as men wore mostly black suits. The suffrage movement began in the mid-19th century, and the 19th amendment was finally ratified in the U.S. in 1920. It was still not a complete victory as women of color were not to share in the benefits until much later, after continuing the protests. Voting rights were never “given” to women…they fought long and hard for them and won them with persistence and determination. 1. https://www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/a26261899/the-history-of-women-wearing-suffragette-white/ My goal was to use this historically accurate suffrage protest ensemble to inspire St. Kate’s students to learn about and evoke a response to current issues surrounding disenfranchisement of underrepresented populations, including women of color and LGBTQIA+ populations. On the first day of fall semester, I introduced the Women’s Suffrage assignment by wearing the 1910 era ensemble I am submitting. After seeing my students’ reactions, I felt compelled as a second wave feminist myself, to make an associated piece representing a look I would have worn while attending the Mothers’ day protests for the ERA in Chicago in May 1980. The impact of the discussion I had with the students really struck a chord highlighting for me how long this struggle has been going on, and provoking deeper questions about what it means. My 1980’s mini-skirt could be worn with or without the same jacket as the 1910 design. Women’s power suits were hugely fashionable in the 80’s with shoulder pads, extra length, and asymmetrical openings being popular then too. It was intended to show women as taking control of their careers and futures. The mini skirt is made from remnants of the 1910 ensemble fabric. I created an updated version of the sash for a 1980’s protest march reading “Equal Pay, ERA!” This project culminated with team projects done by my students in our Advanced Patternmaking class. I created my designs as inspiration, then each student team created their reaction designs which were presented via video segment for a panel discussion on how visual representation influences larger social issues. Their work was powerful, meaningful and deeply personal. This project epitomizes St. Kates mission. 2. Project Images The Symbolism of Women’s Suffrage Dress: Suits of subversion or paragons of persuasion? 3. 4. 5. 6.