‘Fashion, Femininity and Power’ Study Day at Killerton

Victoria Haddock and Beth Graham review the Costume Society's Autumn Study Day ‘Fashion, Femininity and Power’ held at the National Trust's Killerton House on Saturday 15th September.

The study day was planned to coincide with the   National Trust's c entenary c elebration of the Representation of the People Act (1918) ,  which granted  all men over 21 and women over 30   the right to vote in parliamentary elections ,  subject t o  certain qualifications.          


Killerton House currently has three exhibitions on display link ed  to the Nationa l  Trust's Women and Power national programme.  The house exhibition ‘ Votes  for  Women? ’  tells the story of  two of the Acland women of Killerton who were on opposing sides of the suffrage debate.   T he National Portrait Gallery' s  touring exhibition   ‘ Faces for Change: Votes for Women ’ explores  the  fight for female suffrage through paintings and photographs, on display until the 31st October.  Upstairs there is the fashion exhibition ‘ Branded: F ashion, F emininity and the R ight to V ote ’ showcas ing  how women ’s  dress has evolved and  been politicised  since the late 19th century.        


The theme of the study day was dress and politics and the day began with three talks broadly linked.


Professor Angela K. Smith from the University of Plymouth started the day by giving us an   introduction to WWI and the s uffrage movement i n her talk 'What D ifference D id the W ar M ake?    The Campaign for Women's Suffrage and the First World War ’ .   The talk tracked the history of the suffrage movement and examined how the war impacted and changed the campaign.   Smith began by introducing the idea that there are many opposing arguments on t he w ar’s impact - whilst many believe that WWI was instrumental in winning the vote, others think that the vote was practically won by 1914 and only put off as a courtesy until t he w ar finished.


Professor Smith  then discussed the trajectory of the W omen’s S uffrage movement up until 1914. She of course mentioned the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 as an all-female suffrage advocacy union dedicated to ‘deeds, not words’. In its first few years  the WSPU  gained a reputation for civil disorder and as a major threat to the public. However, Smith made the point that what really made the WSPU dangerous was its efficiency and dedication to bureaucracy, which made the suffrage campaign incredibly well-organised, whilst also providing women with the experience of working in leadership roles that they would have otherwise been denied.


However, the WSPU was not the only society campaigning towards w omen’s s uffrage and by 1914 there were a multitude of groups with somewhat fragmented relationships to one another . Their ultimate aim was to g ain  the vote, that was agreed, but the conflicting socio-political views of each society divided groups, making the movement as a whole diverse in opinion and campaign methods. By 1914 the term ‘ s uffrage’ was used as more of an umbrella term for lots of different societies rather than one unified movement.


Smith then went on to examine the effects of the war on the campaign itself. When war was declared, many societies formally withdrew from political activism (which had a knock-on effect of others taking their activism underground) to focus on the war effort. The WSPU in particular saw the war as a way to shift their campaign strategies by aligning itself with the government and declaring absolute support to Britain.


Smith rounded off the lecture by discussing the actual conditions under which women got the vote. In 1918, s uffrage was accepted with the caveat of an age limit, meaning in reality only 8 million women were granted the right to vote, and were thus still the minority. A bittersweet ending, but Smith emphasised the valuable work women undertook in WWI and concluded that this left a lasting social and political impact on Britain.


Dr. Becky Munford, Reader in English Literature at the University of Cardiff, then introduced us to the 'Women in Trousers' visual archive that she is worki ng o n with the universities' library in  her talk  'Not in T hose T rousers:Visualising Women and Power ’ . The talk took the cultural idea of trousers as a  starting point, then looked at women in trousers as an act of political activism, and ended by exploring how Munford’s archive documents unseen women’s history.


Munford started by introducing the idea that trousers have a shifting and unstable meaning, especially when worn by women. Trousers were traditionally associated with ideas of masculinity and civilisation, and symbolised a world women did not have access to in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus, when women began to wear trousers (a symbol of male authority) in the mid-nineteenth century, a complex was constructed in which the wearer confuses the signifier. In short, when women began wearing ‘masculine’ garments, the idea of the trouser as an inherently male garment (and in turn, gender roles) became troubled.


The Bloomer Costume rose to popularity in the mid 1800s. It consisted of what were known as ‘turkish trousers’, and a smock-like upper half. The costume was popularised, unsurprisingly, by Amelia Bloomer who wrote a series of articles in The Lily, a ‘ a ladie s' j ournal d evoted to t emperance and l iterature’  from 1851 onwards, advocating for the new style of dress. Bloomer argued that the divided garment permitted extra mobility and was a more healthful mode of dress. When the style took off in the summer of 1851 in London, the press dubbed the costume and its wearers ‘ B loomers’. However ,  not everyone was a fan of the new trend and soon women were being attacked or even arrested for appearing in public wearing B loomers - Munford argued that the garment acted as a political statement by threatening the trousers’ established male identity.


The press described ‘Bloomerism’ as spreading across London like a sickness and soon launched a smear campaign against the garment through satirical cartoons and defamatory articles. The notion of women in trousers quickly became unjustly linked with ideas of sexual impropriety, ‘unnatural’ behaviour and women of loose morals. ’  Munford argued that through the appropriation of a visual symbol of male power, a kind of role reversal occurred where the male viewer adopted the very behaviour they accused women of having - of being hysterical, having weak nerves, and succumbing to feminine frailties when their world-view was threatened by the sight of the trousered female body.

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