Fashion has always been used as an object of activism and stood for codes that go far beyond aesthetics. Just take Michelle Obama’s V-O-T-E necklace worn for her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Clothing isn’t always just clothing; fashion and activism are intertwined. But with the rise of social media, consumers are asking brands for accountability as to what goes on behind the scenes. As brands engage in modern social and political movements (like Balenciaga’s editorial for Spring/Summer 2020 mimicking election coverage), consumers are finding ways not just to send a message with their clothes, but also with their spending power.
The women’s movement was one of the most important time periods in which fashion stood as a political statement. “Fashion was and is always political because it is a material way to express power,” says fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Ph.D. She adds that this has been especially true for women, noting that in her field of expertise, it dates back to the 1850s. “Women’s rights advocates took the issue of dress reform and the bloomer more specifically as part of their agenda to promote women’s rights and equality. This placed a strong connection between fashion and appearance, and politics. For a long time, long after the bloomer was abandoned, the bloomer continued to be associated with feminism and the feminist struggle.” Still, early on these conversations often left out women of color or other marginalized identities of the time.
In continuation of that legacy, the suffragettes of the early 20th century were recognized for their dress codes. The color white is well known as a hue that signifies the movement, but colors were also worn to signify various beliefs. “The suffragettes wore white as part of a trinity of colors: white for purity, purple for dignity and loyalty, and green for hope,” explains Kara McLeod, fashion historian and professor at FIDM. “The color scheme was first proposed in 1908 in the British publication Votes for Women, by one of the co-editors Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Other publications promoted this, essentially, branding of the women’s suffrage movement. Women also used the colors on ribbons, hat bands, sashes, scarves, or even jewelry to show support for the cause without having an entire outfit. In the U.S., the green was replaced with golden yellow.”