Dressed in white suffragists campaigned for the vote

Women wear white at the Bottineau County Fair in 1914.

When suffrage activists began staging parades in 1908 to bring attention to their cause, organizers instructed women marchers to look their best. They followed New York women labor organizers’ successful strategy to appear as appealing and feminine as possible to avoid being stereotyped by anti-suffragists as unattractive crones and aggressive hellions, according to T. J. Boisseau in “Women Workers and Suffrage.”

What was known as the lingerie dress – made of thin white linen or cotton fabric with lacy trim was a fashionable choice. At that time, thin white fabrics had been used to make undergarments. Starting in the late 1700s, the French began to use these lingerie fabrics for dresses, calling this style chemise de la reign, or underwear of the queen, giving a dig to Marie Antoinette as she was among the first to wear this fashion.

According to the Fashion Dictionary, “in the 1800s, the style became known as the ‘lingerie dress’.” Harper’s Bazaar informed readers that a lingerie dress was one of the most vitally important items for summer. It was popular from the late 1890s to the mid-1910s, during which time the thin white fabric and lace remained constant as the dress’s shape changed with the whims of fashion.

By 1912, lingerie dresses provided uniformity to suffrage campaigns. A May parade featuring 10,000 women marching in white earned the headline “Suffrage Army on Parade” in the New York Times.

“Most of the women, particularly the younger women,” the Times reported, “were dressed all in white, except for the out-flashing of yellow and purple and green and red that was in the ribbons they wore, the banners they carried, and the flags they waved.” Many American suffragists had adopted the colors gold, white and violet for their campaign to signify “Give Women the Vote.”

Some of the North Dakota suffragists photographed at the 1914 Bottineau County Fair wore lingerie dress to promote the passage the 1914 North Dakota referendum on suffrage. The light weight white fabric gave comfort in warmer weather and carried meaning to fair attendees.

Fargo, suffragist Kate Selby Wilder’s cotton lingerie dress dating from this time was donated to the Emily Reynolds Historic Costume Collection at North Dakota State University. Wilder’s dress shows that women in the northern Great Plains suffrage movement were connected to the national suffrage movement through this unofficial white uniform.

The soft white fabric in these lingerie dresses helped assure people that women’s traditional roles would not be forgotten once they achieved the right to vote. 

Ann Braaten is an associate professor in apparel, retail merchandising and design at North Dakota State University and curator of the Emily Reynolds Historic Costume Collection.

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