How Wearing White Became a Symbol of Female Solidarity

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Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wears a white trouser suit to be sworn into Congress, we trace the powerful history of women wearing white as a form of political resistance

Yesterday, New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sworn into office, making her the youngest Congresswoman in US history. For the occasion – which will see her represent New York’s 14th congressional district – she chose to wear a white trouser suit, aligning herself with a long history of women who have chosen the colour as a symbol of political resistance, dating all the way back to Britain’s Suffragettes at the turn of the 20th century. “I wore white today in honour of the women who came before me, and the women yet to come,” she wrote on her Instagram account

Recent events have proved the political power of single-hue dressing – not least the well publicised Time’s Up movement, where actresses, directors and producers alike donned all-black outfits to drew attention to sexual assault, harassment and inequality in Hollywood. And, more recently, France’s ‘gilets jaunes’ or ‘yellow vests’ who protested for economic justice up and down the country.

White, though, was the colour chosen by the Women’s Social and Political Union – the leading force behind the Suffragette movement – for its vast rallies across the country at the beginning of the 20th century. Later in that century and into the 21st, women have turned to wearing white as a symbol of sisterhood and solidarity, reflecting the progress made by those who fought for women’s suffrage in the decades before them. Here, we trace how a white outfit became a powerful symbol for women’s movements. 

Initially white was chosen because it was inconspicuous...

“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,” said Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline and sister of Christabel, in a belief that to further the cause it was important for Suffragettes to remain inconspicuous in dress. Dictated by regular fashion features in newspaper Votes For Women, readers were encouraged to conform to standards of early 20th-century femininity when it came to their personal presentation, believing a fashionable, restrained appearance would avoid the stereotypes of the “masculine” women depicted in cartoons of the time. White was one such way of doing so – considered decidedly feminine, it represented purity of both body and mind.

...But it was later used as a symbol of resistance

As the movement gathered momentum – in 1908, a rally in London’s Hyde Park attracted over 300,000 protesters – the visual impact of a unified dress code became an important tactic of resistance. Three colours – white, purple and green – were chosen as the “tricolour” symbol of Women’s Social and Political Union, devised by Votes for Women co-founder Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence to encompass colours that many women already had in their wardrobe. Though purple and green were considered acceptable for smaller events, Votes for Women encouraged the wearing of white for large-scale events, such as public demonstrations. The result was that of co-ordinated force – a tactic used by numerous protest movements in the century since.

White was chosen because it represents purity

The colours were not selected by Pethick-Lawrence for visual impact alone, though – each came imbued with a meaning that defined the ethos of the Votes for Women cause. Purple was chosen to symbolise loyalty and “unswerving steadfastness to a cause”, green for hope and white for purity. The women fighting for suffrage in the early 20th century knew that espousing purity and femininity would help to garner respect from their male counterparts, and subvert any ideas of the colour representing submission by wearing it en masse during public rallies and outings. The idea of purity extended beyond traditional associations with the female body and became representative of the women’s pure and dignified purpose, intellects and hopes.

It has been worn by women at historic moments

In more recent political and pop cultural history, women have chosen to wear white as a symbol of empowerment during significant moments. The colour has long been associated with new beginnings, and women in positions of power have worn it to evoke strength and solidarity with the suffrage cause. Prior to Ocasio-Cortez’s outfit at Congress yesterday, the white suit has been favoured by female politicians in the US. In 1969, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to Congress, and she wore all-white on her first day. Chisholm would also wear white three years later when she announced her presidential bid in 1972, stating: “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolises a new era in American political history.”

1984 saw Geraldine Ferraro wear a white suit and pearls to accept her nomination for vice-president, the first woman in the US to do so. And, following in the footsteps of Chisholm and Ferraro, the white trouser suit became a staple for Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign, and post-defeat she poignantly wore white to Donald Trump’s inauguration. Ocasio-Cortez’s continuation of this loaded sartorial choice affirms the idea of new beginnings and the strength of women’s solidarity, and on such a historic day for American politics – with the first Native American and Muslim women being sworn into Congress alongside her – it was a perfect and powerful choice.