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When you think of the women’s suffrage movement what are some images that typically come to mind? Women marching down the street holding signs and wearing sashes or over exaggerated political cartoons depicting both pro- and anti-suffrage sentiments are usually what people think of. However, there was another method used to spread the message of supporting women’s rights; art. Art in the form of fashion design and music were methods that were utilized during the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bloomer Waltz

The Bloomer Waltz, 1851, William Dressler, paper, L: 13 x W: 9.75 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Harry Shaw Newman Gallery, N0001.1945.

Bloomers were employed as a symbol for women’s rights in the 1850s when Amelia Bloomer wrote an article about the clothes after seeing her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton wear them. [1] While bloomers were not meant to be a sign of protest or nonconformity, they soon became a symbol of the women’s rights movement. However, there were many negative views on bloomers as some people believed they were unflattering for women to wear and due to their similarity to trousers, women who wore bloomers were seen as threats to men and their role in society. [2] Many forms of media portrayed bloomers in a negative light, but one advocate of the movement was music. While there was still music being written that was critical of bloomers, there were also those composers who wrote music that supported the fashion statement.

 

Music was used for dances known as bloomer balls, which were dances women were supposed to attend wearing bloomers. In the sheet music “The Bloomer Waltz” by William Dressler the piece was meant to be used during a dance that was supportive of the bloomer outfit, as opposed to some dances that were put on in order to critique and diminish women who wore bloomers. Dressler’s support can be seen in both the music itself by the way it was written, and also in the cover art of the piece. Musically, Dressler’s piece was written as a waltz that was meant to be performed during an event so people could dance while it was being played. Many musical techniques such as key, time signature, and dynamics are used throughout the piece to give it a lively feel. The cover art also portrays a woman wearing bloomers looking off into the distance. As opposed to looking caricatured and unattractive, the woman looks realistic showing that the piece was not making fun of bloomers or those women who chose to wear them.

While bloomers were a short lived fashion, as was the music written for bloomer balls, the impact both made was impactful. Both men and women were able to use forms of art to make a statement and challenge the norms society had for women.

-Allison Costantino

[1] Antonia Petrash, More than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women (Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002), 51.

[2] Gayle V. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States (Kent, OH: Kent University Press, 2001), 91

New York State’s centennial for women’s suffrage marks a worthy occasion to examine the period’s material culture and its connections to today. In the 1910s, the fight for women’s suffrage took a different form. Previously, most suffragists wrote letters and pamphlets and did speaking tours to publicize their arguments for women’s suffrage. Public protests did not become widespread until the 1910s. This yellow armband embodies the shift. Suffragists organized public protests and wore accessories to reflect their support for the movement, actions still practiced by protestors today.

votes for women

Women’s Suffrage armband, Felt, 1910-1920, Fenimore Art Museum, N0147.1945(01). Photograph by Michael Barone.

This armband, composed of yellow felt and black text, was a common design for the period. Its message is blunt: “VOTES FOR WOMEN.” Such armbands indicated to parade onlookers the event’s purpose, but also signaled to other suffragists that the wearer sympathized with the cause. This specific armband was hand cut from a larger piece of felt. It was probably part of a batch crafted for a large group of suffragists. Web searches unearth other similarly styled armbands, further suggesting its large-scale production.

votes for women 2

Women’s Suffrage armband, Felt, 1910-1920, Fenimore Art Museum, N0147.1945(01). Photograph by Michael Barone.

The American suffrage movement oft represented itself with two colors: purple and yellow. British suffragists popularized purple, which American suffragists later adopted. Yellow, however, was a purely American suffrage color, anchoring this armband in the American movement. Yellow became associated with women’s suffrage in 1867, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony attempted to pass women’s suffrage in Kansas. Suffragists started to use Kansas’s state symbol, a sunflower, to represent the movement, which led to yellow’s link to women’s suffrage. [1]

Today, protestors still wear clothing and accessories that coordinate with other protestors to emphasize solidarity. For example, after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, demonstrators wore hoodies, because Martin and his clothing choice had been negatively portrayed in the media. [2] In January, many women wore pink “pussyhats” to marches protesting President Trump’s inauguration. [3] Wearing these items created a sense of unity between protestors throughout the country.

However, these examples differ from the armband in a key way. The hoodies and “pussyhats” for the most part did not explicitly state the protest’s purpose. An onlooker would require background knowledge. If they were not familiar with Donald Trump’s leaked comments, or Trayvon Martin’s murder and its portrayal in the media, they would not understand the clothing’s meaning. A pink knit cap with ears or a hoodie would not seem out of place when worn by one person, but when thousands of people wear them, the message carries weight.

This armband, unlike the hoodies or “pussyhats,” explicitly states its message. An onlooker would not need to know that yellow represented the women’s suffrage movement in the United States to understand its wearer’s intent for wearing it, because it includes text. Today, the rise of social media and television allows the meaning behind protestor clothing choices to quickly disseminate. Sartorial expressions continue to be a powerful way for demonstrators to broadcast their unity and purpose.

By Erin Russell

[1] “Symbolic Suffrage Colors,” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed March 27, 2017. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/votesforwomen/tour_02-02l.html.

[2] Linton Weeks, “Tragedy Gives The Hoodie A Whole New Meaning,” National Public Radio, March 24, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/03/24/149245834/tragedy-gives-the-hoodie-a-whole-new-meaning.

[3] “’Pussyhat’ protestors headed to D.C. for post-inauguration rally,” Washington Post, January 17, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/local/pussyhat-protesters-headed-to-dc-for-post-inauguration-rally/2017/01/17/9fd3247c-dcf4-11e6-8902-610fe486791c_video.html.