When thinking about the fashion of the women’s suffrage movement, people’s minds often naturally conjure images of women trading their long skirts for bloomers and vehemently casting aside their restrictive corsets. By this logic, one might easily dismiss the owner of this 1896 wedding dress as ambivalent, or even opposed, to suffrage and the sweeping changes to fashion associated with it. After all, the dress shows no evidence of the women’s clothing reform that began in the 19th century. Conforming to mainstream high fashion of the time, it has a high, stiff collar and would have been worn with a corset. Furthermore, the bride who wore it, Sarah Peters Hickok, was a homemaker and socialite from Oneonta, NY.[1] Yet, despite these facts, this dress is not sufficient grounds upon which to determine Sarah’s political position because suffragist dress and thoughts on the subject varied widely during the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

IMG_2701

Bodice and skirt, ca. 1896, patterned silk, satin, lace, H: 18 (bodice), 45 (skirt) x W: 22 in. (bodice waist). Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Hannah Hampe, N0041.1955a-b. Photograph by the author.

It is true that women’s rights activists had already donned bloomers by the mid-19th century. However, they soon largely returned to more traditional dress after realizing that the radical and shocking bloomers were actually more of a distraction than an asset in their fight for equality.[2] While bloomers reemerged by the time this wedding dress was made in the late 19th century, they were primarily used as bicycling outfits.[3]

Appropriate dress was a strategic and hotly debated topic among suffragists, dividing even those at the forefront of the movement. Some activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, equated the corsets and long skirts of contemporary female fashion with oppression, designed to keep women subservient. However, others followed the lead of Susan B. Anthony, who was stylish, aware of current fashion trends, and determined to maintain her femininity in dress.[4] Attempting to simultaneously challenge traditional ideas about both fashion and the right to vote was dangerous, with the former potentially jeopardizing the latter.

As in the U.S., suffragists in the U.K. also “married radical ideas with willfully conventional dress.”[5] Having observed the American bloomer debacle, British suffragist leader Lydia Becker took a conservative position on dress, advising women to “stick to your stays, ladies, and triumph over the other sex.”[6] Even Emmeline Pankhurst and the militant suffragists of the Women’s Political and Social Union, who were known for arson, window smashing, and picture slashing, exhibited elegance and refinement in their dress. Suffragists were advocating radical ideas and they had to choose their battles wisely: fashion or the ballot. Dressing in a conservative manner gave suffragists credibility and helped make the notion of women voting more palatable. It also prevented them from being seen as demanding too much change too quickly.[7]

So, was the owner of this wedding dress a suffragist? We may never know. However, what is certain is that the conservative and restrictive style of her dress does not preclude the possibility that she was. Indeed, suffragist Charlotte Hawkins Brown dressed very similar to Sarah Peters Hickok for her 1911 wedding. In short, one cannot judge a suffragist by her dress.

[1] “Delaware County News,” The Oneonta Star (Oneonta, NY), March 19, 1926, 7.

[2] Gayle V. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001), 104-107

[3] Ibid., 171-172.

[4] Jenny Cobb, “The Fashion of Suffrage: Women “Vote” with Their Clothes,” Bullock Museum, https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/discover/artifacts/suffrage-dress-shoes.

[5] Cally Blackman, “How the Suffragettes Used Fashion to Further the Cause,” The Guardian, Oct. 8, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/oct/08/suffragette-style-movement-embraced-fashion-branding.

[6] Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism (New York: Routledge, 2016), 91-92.

[7] Ibid.

By Sarah Phillips