Suffragists, Votes for Women, and the Tailored Suit.

One hundred years ago today, on August 18, 1920, it became illegal to deny voting rights in the United States on the basis of sex. It was a major victory in a long and hard-fought battle for women’s rights. Though it was certainly not the end of that battle, it is an important victory to celebrate.

During the Edwardian era, many American women became more interested in gaining the right to vote. After the independent “New Woman” emerged in the late nineteenth century, women participated in more societal activities. They went to college, got jobs, and became politically engaged.

Various organizations lobbied, protested, and fought during the early twentieth century for women to get the right to vote. Though there was no official “suffragist uniform,” suffragists tended to wear office attire or work wear – generally a tailored suit.

The suit shown here was exhibited in “Fashioning the New Woman: 1890-1925” at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington D.C. (October 2012-August 2013) and was displayed at the Supreme Court to provide an example of what Belva Lockwood (1830-1917), the American lawyer and woman’s rights advocate, might have worn when she appeared before the supreme court in 1905. (O’Brien 2018)

Boeklage Tailored Suit from the DAR Museum on view at the Supreme Court in 2018.
Tailored Suit, 1904-1906, William Boeklage label. (Daughters of the American Revolution Museum) 2011.12.2.A” and “2011.12.2.B” N.d. DAR Museum Online Collection. Accessed November 13, 2018.

This two-piece woman’s tailored suit, consisting of a double-breasted suit jacket and skirt, dates to between 1904-1906. It is made of black cotton with white floats, giving it a pinstriped-effect. The jacket is short and fitted, with a high, wide lapel, eight buttons, and two front pockets with flaps and is slightly flared at the hips. The long jacket sleeves include slightly puffed shoulders. The gored skirt has a flat front, and large gathered pleats at the center back in bias-cut panels. The slightly flared skirt has a deep flounce that begins at the knee. The center back skirt closure includes metal snaps and a black silk grosgrain waistband, and it is hemmed with black cotton tape. It has been altered and includes a train that has been tucked underneath and sewn inside the skirt. The silhouette of the jacket suggests that a flat-fronted S-Curve corset was worn with the suit (DAR Museum).

The makers’ label “William Boeklage /14 Rue Castiglione / Paris” is sewn in at the back of the neck. It includes a white, masculine style shirtwaist and tie. The Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington D.C. purchased it in 2011. The fabric, described by DAR curator Alden O’Brien is “a cotton novelty weave—a nice summer (and spring) suit. . . . It has [the] effect of a pinstripe almost—or dots.” (Correspondence, April 12, 2018).

Suits by Boeklage in “Le Mode Et Le Sport.” 1911. Le Sport Universel Illustre. July 9, Accessed November 9, 2011.

Little is known about the Parisian ladies’ tailor, William Boeklage (or Bœklage). The firm was most likely established in 1895 at 16 Rue Daunou in Paris and was in business until at least 1920. By 1904, the firm had gained notoriety in Paris as well as in the United States. U.S. newspapers as well as Parisian fashion magazines included Boeklage alongside other famous Parisian designers such as Paquin and Doucet. In 1911, one French magazine detailed the firms’ devotion to chicness, opulence, and to “a pureté de la ligne (“purity of line”). Although the 1920 edition of the Fairchild Directory of Paris Dressmakers includes the firm, Boeklage is not mentioned anywhere afterward .

The struggle for women’s suffrage has often been visually represented by the image of women in masculine suits, even as early as the 1850s. The press also often called suffragists by the derogatory term “Suffragettes” to belittle their cause, suggesting that it and they were small. While there was no official ‘suffragist suit,” the suffragists wore clothing fashionable of the time. Suffragists in the United States began to use clothing to identify themselves around 1910, following the lead of British suffragists. Suffragists were called “man-haters,” by the press and caricatured mercilessly by the cartoonists, often portrayed wearing men’s suits with pants and smoking cigars. Suffragists began wearing fashionable, feminine dresses to show that the modern woman could be attractive and still stand for her rights. During parades and rallies, many women were encouraged to wear white to draw attention to their cause. The white tailored suit is now deeply associated with the suffragists and women’s rights more generally.

This is not only the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment. It is an election year and every vote counts, votes that need to be protected, and used by every citizen. Honor those who fought for this right. Use it!

This post is one in a series that gives readers a sneak-peek into my new book Artifacts from American Fashion , as well as the research behind it. The book offers readers a unique look at daily life in twentieth-century America through the lens of fashion and clothing. It covers forty-five essential articles of fashion or accessories, chosen to illuminate significant areas of twentieth-century American daily life and history, including Politics, World Events, and War; Transportation and Technology; Home and Work Life; Art and Entertainment; Health, Sport, and Leisure; and Alternative Cultures, Youth, Ethnic, Queer, and Counter Culture. Through these artifacts, readers can follow the major events, social movements, cultural shifts, and technological developments that shaped our daily life in the U.S.

Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her new book, Artifacts from American Fashion (November 2019, ABC-CLIO) is available wherever books are sold.  More posts by the Author »

Further Information

“’Moneybak’ Silks, Handsome Gowns Made of it.” 1904. The Indianapolis Star 27 Nov. 26. Accessed November 8, 2018.

“2011.12.2.A” and “2011.12.2.B” N.d. DAR Museum Online Collection. Accessed November 13, 2018.

“Fashioning the New Woman. 1890-1925.” 2012. Daughters of the American Revolution Museum. Accessed November 13, 2018.

 “Le Mode Et Le Sport.” 1911. Le Sport Universel Illustre. July 9, Accessed November 9, 2011.

“Les Grandes Modes de Paris Revue de l’Elegance.”1904. Journal du Loiret. April. Accessed November 8, 2018. .

“Paris Dressmakers.” 1920. Fairchild’s National Directory and Digest, Volume 17, pp 403. Accessed November 9, 2018.,+Ladies+Tailor&source=bl&ots=OAe_CXS2iP&sig=uoxg3j8DY-AdmE-S6aP_hwmEJOk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjt-bC-urbaAhXmrlQKHZvfAjUQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=Boeklage%2C%20Ladies%20Tailor&f=false

Cunningham, Patricia A. 2003. Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850 – 1920: Politics, Health, and Art. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

Finnegan, Margaret Mary. 1999. Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture & Votes for Women. New York : Columbia University Press.

O’Brien, Alden. 2018. “A DAR Museum Loan to the Supreme Court of the United States.” September 11. Accessed November 13, 2018.

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