The Single Strip of Fabric That Went From ‘Votes for Women’ to ‘Miss America’
Read Time:5 Minute, 19 Second

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.”

Credit…Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images, via Getty Images

But how to appear appropriately dainty while still “wearing the colors”? Some women opted for subtle accessories: hat ribbons, necklaces and brooches. But the most iconic means of achieving this balance — preserving the visibility of suffragists’ dresses while at the same time making the allegiance of the wearer clear — was the sash. (It also served the bonus purpose of connecting the militancy of her actions to a martial past.)

Alice Paul, a New Jersey native, was active with the suffragists in England from 1907 to 1910 while she was there studying social sciences. When she returned to the United States and took up the suffrage battle at home, she applied lessons learned from her time in Britain. Paul helped conceptualize and lead the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, held the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration in March 1913. The event was highly structured, with colors and sashes playing an important role in projecting harmony and organization while still emphasizing the femininity of the marchers.

The sash embodies the suffragists’ vision of womanhood — one that was simultaneously progressive and regressive. That vision helped move women into the public and political spheres, but it did so by emphasizing their appearance, associated with more conservative notions of femininity.

In that light, it is less surprising that in 1921, the year following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, eight women stood on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., most of them wearing sashes — all the better to see their bodies with. They were competing to win a bathing beauty contest. One of those women, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, became the first “Miss America.”

The original intent of Miss America, conceived by businessmen, was to use women’s bodies to titillate a crowd to stay a week longer down at the shore after the summer season had ended. The women primarily stood, walked and smiled as they were evaluated.

Credit…Associated Press

It is uncomfortable to recognize that shortly after women got the right to vote, an enduring national ritual developed that silenced women and reduced them to their appearance — even if at the time, a woman presenting her body to be judged in public, especially in a swimsuit, was quite unconventional. The proximate birthdays of the 19th Amendment and Miss America is no coincidence, and the sash, in some ways, bridges the two.

Given its ties to both royalty and femininity, the sash was a logical choice for Miss America. Today, it can still be spotted in thousands of other pageants held on college campuses, at rural fairs, in urban centers and more. But the sash faded from feminist action after passage of the 19th Amendment. The suffrage sash is now an anachronism, brought out to mark historic events. New feminist fashion statements have emerged, like the more recent pink pussy hat.

Today the most common use for a sash, beyond pageants, is as celebratory garb. When you search for “sash” on shopping platforms, todays’ sets are often designed for bachelorette parties and feature words like “Wifey Material” and “Maid of Dishonor.” These sashes continue to emphasize the push and pull of femininity: women are able to be out in public, seemingly unconcerned about being dainty or outré, while still focused on one of the most traditional signifiers of womanhood: marriage.

Undoubtedly, some suffragists would be appalled. They would, however, be pleased that all these bachelorettes and pageant queens could vote.

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.”

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