Dressing with Confidence in the fight for the Vote

Dr Maureen Wright

How we present ourselves in our work dress is not just a consideration for modern life. It has played a significant part of women and men’s awareness for centuries, ranging from preparing for meetings to its inclusion in strategies for campaigns and public presentations.

On 19 May 2016 the Chartered Management Institute’s Southern Region is hosting a breakfast event entitled ‘Dressing with Confidence’ in Havant, Hampshire. In a blog on the event, Jo Strain, Women in Management Lead for CMI Southern says that ‘there is no right or wrong way to dress. The event won’t dictate what you should wear…but…it will give you new insights to develop your own style of confident dressing.’ Dressing well and appropriately for the context, can, therefore, help to bring results.

The idea of ‘confident dressing’ for women in the public eye is not a new one. In fact, dress was often on the mind of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU, the militant suffragettes). Pankhurst and her followers often had to contend with charges from more conservative women, and men, who saw the group as members of the ‘Shrieking Sisterhood’ – a term employed by the cartoonists of Punch and other Edwardian satirical magazines to condemn those campaigning on women’s issues as ‘unnatural’ for daring to speak in the public sphere. The images portrayed were those of handbag waving ‘harridans’, spinsters whose ‘lack-of-looks’ had ruined their marriage chances and made them into man-haters, who desired nothing more than to ape men in government and the professions to give them a purpose in life. In an age where women were thought of in a binary way – they were either ‘Eve’ the temptress, or Mary, the Queen of Heaven – these ‘outcast’ women, with their modern ways, ‘rational’ dress and (often) spinster status, did not fit society’s ideals.

“It was an age where women were thought of in a binary way… ‘rational’ dress
did not fit society’s ideals”

The idea of ‘separate spheres’, particularly for the middle-classes in Victorian times, delineated domestic and professional life on clearly gendered lines. It was for men, not women, to make speeches, conduct business and civic life and, most significant of all, elect and be elected to parliament. Public gatherings, marches and protests were, likewise, male domains. Women’s place, as the old phrase has it, was in the home; their role that of carer, nurturer, mother and wife. They were to dress demurely, put their own needs behind those of their husbands and children and micro-manage their ‘estate’ – regardless of its size.

It is easy to see then, just what a challenge women’s suffragists (be they constitutionalist [non-violent] or militants such as the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League made to ideas of women’s conventional role in society. Emmeline Pankhurst, however, was a brilliant tactician, and she took on the task of transforming her followers into the epitome of womanly elegance as they marched through London and other provincial cities and towns from 1905-14. In June 1908, for example,  up to half a million people gathered in Hyde Park to watch seven processions of WSPU members converge on the site and speak from 20 platforms which had been erected above the heads of the crowd. Pankhurst had ordered that the 40,000 marchers be attired in white dresses, with adornments of purple and green. These were the ‘colours’ of the WSPU – white for purity, purple for dignity and green for hope – and the whole effect was, Pankhurst’s biographer records, one of ‘pageantry and spectacle’. One of the oldest suffragists in Britain, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, led the first procession along with Pankhurst, carrying a bouquet of purple, white and green flowers. In addition, 700 magnificent banners were carried by the marchers.

“Pankhurst had ordered that 40,000 marchers be attired in white dresses,
with adornments of purple and green”

It could be claimed that Pankhurst was seeking to undermine the arguments of those against the women’s vote by asking her followers to dress in this way. By adhering to her request – something they were to do again five years later at the funeral procession for Emily Wilding Davison after she died following injuries sustained at The Derby in 1913 – these ‘wild women’ as they were often called, appeared demure, elegant and calm. This was often in the face of cat-calls and brutal treatment meted out to them by members of the public and the police, who were charged with ‘keeping the peace’ at these events.

Pankhurst herself was always elegantly attired, often in a black or purple trained dress and feathered hat. She wore a size three-and-a-half shoe. She also had a melodious voice and was a superb orator. Some years after the end of the campaign, one of her followers had been asked to sum up Emmeline in one word – she chose ‘Dignity’. Emmeline clearly chose her clothes in order to feel confident – even when if the face of legal and parliamentary opposition, she may have felt its lack. She was determined to lead the fight for women’s equality to the bitter end, and clothes, both for herself and her followers, played their part in campaigning for the cause.


External links
Punch cartoon depicting those campaigning for women’s suffrage

Blog on Dressing with confidence, CMI Southern

A selection of images on Pinterest of the Suffragettes



  • June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst, (London and New York: Routledge, 2002)
  • Maureen Wright, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement: the biography of an Insurgent Woman, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2011)


© 2016 Dr Maureen Wright


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