September 1, 2019

{The Story of a Blue Dress}

In celebration of the Suffrage Centennial in the United States (one-hundred years after Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919 and when it was ratified in August 1920, giving women the vote), I'm giving a series of fashion-related presentations over the next year. This is one of the stories I shared in my talk “Dressed to Protest: What Women Wore to the Revolution” at the kick-off event in Sylva, North Carolina.

The Story of a Blue Dress
At last the preposterous dream of seventy years began to be realized,” wrote Eileen Tannich Gose and Kathy Wiederstein DeHerrera in Reflecting Freedom: How Fashion Mirrored the Struggle for Women’s Rights. 
In January 1918, Jeanette Rankin from Montana (the first and only woman in Congress) introduced the suffrage-granting Anthony Amendment (named after Susan B. Anthony who had first introduced it in 1878) in the House of Representatives where it passed the needed two-thirds majority by a single vote.


Thrilled at the 19th amendment passing in the House, National American Women’s Suffrage Association president Carrie Chapman Catt was certain that congressional victory, after 40 exasperating years, was near,” Elaine Weiss explained in The Woman's Hour. Carrie’s enthusiasm overpowered her usual patient pragmatism, as well as the current wartime austerity, and she ordered a new silk “ratification dress” to wear as she campaigned through the states, fashioning it in her favorite color—sapphire blue.

However, the ratification dress hung in Carrie’s closet for a full year-and-a-half as the Senate dithered and filibustered and twice more voted down the amendment. When she received the phone call in early June of 1919 that the amendment finally squeaked through, Carrie first broke into a wild dance, stomping all over her house, whooping and singing,” then she calmly went to work, putting her ratification plans into motion.

“It was finally time to put on the blue dress, but before she could, it needed to be remodeled and shortened by a seamstress, as fashion styles had changed so rapidly in the meantime, continued Weiss. Though the dress had hung in her closet for an infuriating 18 months, Carrie Catt eventually put it to good use”—in its more stylish silhouette—“as she blazed through the states, chasing the thirty-six required legislative ratifications.” And, after more than a year traveling over the country, she wore it once more in the last state to vote—hot, stifling Tennessee in August of 1920 (and probably wore it with one of those new-fangled girdles!)


But Carrie was to wear the dress again on August 27—the day after the amendment was signed into law—during the glorious celebratory parade in New York City honoring women’s newly-won suffrage. She stood in the back of an open car to salute the cheering crowd, tall and proud, her hat tilted to one side, the other arm holding the gigantic bouquet of blue delphiniums (her favorite flower) and suffrage-yellow chrysanthemums, where “she seemed at once the victorious general and the beloved queen,” as Weiss described.

The next day, when Carrie finally returned home to Juniper Ledge, she sat at her desk and, looking out at her garden, wrote “a poignant charge to the women voters of the nation”:

The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guaranty of your liberty. That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Women have suffered agony of soul which you never can comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it!

The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer. Use it intelligently, conscientiously, prayerfully. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act! ~


[Sources: Eileen Tannich Gose and Kathy Wiederstein DeHerrera from Reflecting Freedom: How Fashion Mirrored the Struggle for Women’s Rights and Elaine Weiss from The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.]


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