Image by JJ Ying


Emilia Webhofer

A look at suffragette white and its history

Worn by Hillary Clinton for her Democratic nomination acceptance speech in 2016. Channeled by democratic congresswomen at the State of the Union 2020 to unite for women’s rights, which have been under siege during the Trump administration. Most recently seen on Kamala Harris for her first speech as vice-president-elect: suffragette white.

“Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision, to see what can be unburdened by what has been, I stand on their shoulders.”

Harris thanked the generations of women that paved the way for her, not only through her words but her outfit of choice. Her white suit went viral. Because fashion is political. Fashion is decisive. Fashion is a choice. Just as we choose our words and gestures, we choose to visually represent our opinions through fashion. Kamala Harris chose to pay homage to the suffragette movement and all women fighting before her in her first public address after reaching a milestone in women’s history. 

Using visuals to your advantage

“An idea that is driven home to the mind through the eye produces a more striking and lasting impression than any that goes through the ear.”

Only during the early 20th century, suffragettes realized they could use repeated media coverage about their appearance to their advantage, and their clothing choices as a tool of power. To confront gender stereotypes, however, they didn’t wear masculine or gender-neutral clothing, but rather what was regarded as classic feminine fashion. They decided to embrace beautiful and delicate dresses to defy critics’ claims that they were devilish Amazons destroying gender hierarchies and to present an image of skilled women cleaning corruption within a male dominated society.

Why white?

The suffragettes’ outfits distinctly stood out from the crowd, but it was the hues they selected that caught the media’s attention, back then and now. “Purple, as everyone knows is the royal color, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity… white stands for purity in private and public life… green is the color of hope and the emblem of spring”, as Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, editor for the weekly newspaper Votes for Women, explained. In the United States, green was replaced by gold, the color of light and life, as “as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving”.  Although green and purple were worn on smaller occasions, wearing what is known as “suffragette white” today was strongly encouraged for big gatherings. 

Why has white emerged as the core color of the movement? There is a practical reason: white fabric was cheaper and more available. It allowed women of all classes to show solidarity with the women’s rights movement in public. However, the significance of white clothing has been accelerated through photographs. Due to the nature of black and white photography it’s likely that we pick up shades like yellow as white, leaving a slightly flawed perception that wearing white was the single fashion strategy employed by suffragettes. 

Is fashion really an empowered choice?

Surely, fashion will always play a significant role in society. The suffragettes proved that fashion and politics don’t rule each other out but attract each other. Being aware of that, we can use appearance as a powerful tool to emphasize our opinions. Yet this is only expected of women. Whether on red carpets or on the stage of politics, women have to meticulously think through their appearance, from colors (bright red – “too angry!”, black – “too sad?”, pink – “too youthful, why can’t she age?”) to shoes (converse – “unprofessional!”, leather boots – “immodest!”). Vice-president Harris’ white pantsuit captured just as much, if not even more, attention in the public as her speech did. There were more articles dedicated to her love of converse than to some of her policies. However, no one ever dissected Biden’s choice of clothes. For men, a black suit fits all. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the inauguration or the Oscars. But why? Why do we need to use fashion to underline our thoughts? Aren’t we heard loud enough without a bold fashion statement?