Next week, in case you’d somehow managed to avoid it, is poling day for the UK. At the 2010 general election, almost 30 million people turned out to vote, imagine if that had been half? Ninety-seven years ago, that would have been the case with a large number of the UK’s voice not being heard in elections. Specifically, the female voice.
Just as today, the political leaders don their party-coloured ties, so the activists who fought for the vote for women donned colours and symbols to spread the message. Sometimes fashion makes history because of its iconic design, and sometimes fashion makes history because of who wore it and when.
The colours of one of the most famous activist groups, the Women’s Social and Political Union lead by Emmeline Pankhurst, were green, white and purple. Green represented hope, white represented purity and purple represented dignity. Honorary Treasurer of the group, Pethick Lawrence, came up with the colours, and said of them: “Purple…is the royal colour…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 colour of hope and the emblem of spring.” This new uniform gave their marches and protests even more impact as eye catching crowds of women gathered across the country to get their voice heard.
Accessories were an easy, and affordable, way for women of all walks of like to show their involvement and support. Sashes, scarves and ribbons were popular items that flew the flag for women’s rights as well as items of jewellery and badges.
There are many, many examples of these accessories, a lot of them homemade, some specially made as awards for women who made an outstanding contribution. Some brooches were shaped in a ‘V’ for the vote, while many wore a flag-shaped badge or rosette, more associated with campaign tactics. Award jewellery was often more explicit in representing the suffering they endured, with features such as the ‘convict’s arrows’, which used to be on prisoner’s clothing, for those who had been imprisoned and medals for hunger strike featured a tally of the number of times they suffered force feeding.
In more general society, retailers caught on to the demand and produced fine jewellery for more affluent suffragette supporters. For example, British heritage jewellers Mappin & Webb, who are still in business today, produced a range of gold brooches set with amethysts, pearls and emeralds.
The Museum of London has the largest collection of Suffragette memorabilia including clothing and accessories and is well worth a look but the chances are, if you find jewellery dating from 1908 to 1918 with purple, white and green jewels or beads, it’s no coincidence.
The resounding feel from these pieces of paraphernalia is that these women wanted to protest, show their support for the movement and express their beliefs in a way that also represented their femininity. Sometimes there’s more to fashion than meets the eye.