The Improbable Journey of the Suffragist Sash

tags: feminism, suffrage, voting rights, Miss America

Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociologist at Brown University, is the author of the forthcoming Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America.

A sash — a piece of fabric draped over the head and worn from the shoulder to the opposite hip — is a strange garment. Its purpose is, essentially, decorative, but it has been worn for decoration by many types: It was part of male military dress uniforms in Europe at least as long ago as the 16th century. Royalty make use of them as well — you may recall that at his 2011 wedding, Prince William wore a bright blue sash with his dress uniform, and Princess Grace of Monaco frequently appeared in hers, an Order of St. Charles band.

The sash was also, famously, the accessory of choice for the suffrage movement.

Iconic images from the early 20th century feature sashed suffragists marching in parade formation down city streets and protesting outside the White House, wearing strips of fabric frequently adorned with the words “Votes for Women” in the American suffrage tricolor: purple, white and golden yellow.

What lay behind the choice of the sash for the suffrage movement? Why does it come out today for events like bachelorette parties and beauty pageants, even as it has been more or less retired from official feminism? The answer lies in the sash’s peculiar properties, which managed to make it emblematic of the careful line the suffrage movement had to walk: it allowed women to make a statement, while still retaining social acceptability. Today, its statement-making properties have faded, but the festive air remains.

It was British suffragists who most famously tied the sash to the movement. These women understood that fashion was a part of their fight: Some men were concerned that women would become too “masculine” if they got the right to vote, so suffrage leaders like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst sought to reassure those detractors by encouraging suffragists to adhere to the rigorous feminine dress standards of the day. The newspaper Votes for Women, co-founded by Pethick-Lawrence, declared in 1908, “The suffragette of today is dainty and precise in her dress.” Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter, conceded, “Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford, rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing harm to the cause.”

Read entire article at New York Times