If you study the photographs of women en masse in the suffrage archive, it is the hat that dominates – whether laden with roses or topped with aggressive-looking albatross feathers. In 1909, women’s hats typically measured three feet high (trimmings included) and two feet wide, and their preposterous growth was linked, in part, to female politics.
Mrs Pankhurst insisted that if they were to win the nation over, suffragettes must ensure that they were the best-dressed, most alluring women at every social gathering. Last century’s New Woman in her masculine straw boater had created the caricature of unmarriageable spinsters in trilbies. This image had to be purged. And so, by personal example, Emmeline and her daughter Christabel promoted large, fashionable hats. If you were both powerful and feminine, went the message, then you had the best of both worlds.
Didn’t animal rights mean anything to Mrs Pankhurst? ‘No member of the WSPU divides her attention between suffrage and other social reforms,’ she wrote in 1914. ‘There is not the slightest doubt that the women of Great Britain would have been enfranchised years ago had all the suffragists adopted this simple principle.’
Narrowness of focus was the suffragette leader’s ideal, and her foot soldiers had to be seen to obey the ‘Commander-in-Chief ’. Mrs Pankhurst’s purple feather was a thing of beauty, representing her femininity – but it was also a symbol of power.
Header photo: copyright Museum of London
A dozen feathered hats, hidden within the fashion archives of the Victorian
V&A Lunchtime Lecture, WEDNESDAY 17 OCTOBER 1pm, Hochhauser Auditorium: ‘Bird Hats and Murderous Millinery.’ Whole birds, half birds and birds’ wings decorate dozens of hats held in the V&A’s fashion archives – evidence of a craze that gripped women for half a century, from the 1870s to the 1920s. Join me to hear the intriguing untold story of women, birds, hats – and votes.
This lecture dovetails with the current Fashioned From Nature Exhibition.