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How to dress like a New Zealand Suffragist

Today is the 124th anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to allow women the right to vote.  September 19th is celebrated as White Camellia Day or New Zealand Suffrage Day, the first name after the emblem of the New Zealand suffrage movement: the white camellia.

White Camellia Day is particularly exciting this year, as Saturday is a parliamentary election, early voting is already open, so lots of women I know are planning to vote today, and there is a reasonable chance that New Zealand will elect its third female prime minister.  I’m going to vote on Saturday (Mr D & I have a tradition of walking to the polls together ((d’aww)) and I’ll be voting based on policy, not gender, but I still think it’s fantastic that New Zealand has already had two female prime ministers, and might have another.

In honour of the elections and Suffrage Day falling so close together, and since there has been discussion of people going to the polls dressed as suffragettes, I thought I’d do a post about what New Zealand suffragettes wore, as opposed to what was worn by votes campaigners in England and the US, 20 some years after New Zealand women were already voting.

Technically speaking, New Zealand women’s votes campaigners weren’t suffragettes at all – the term refers to members of violent suffrage movements like the WSPU in England.  New Zealand campaigners were suffragists: they to achieve the vote by more peaceful means.  Suffragette as a term was not coined until the early 20th century, and was not used in New Zealand until July 1906.

New Zealand suffragists also differed from the British suffragettes in that the New Zealand women’s vote moment was always determined that all women, of all walks of life, should have the vote – English campaigners were willing to compromise and give the vote only to richer women, and some of the major groups, like the WSPU, were never focused on universal female suffrage.

As New Zealand’s most well known suffragist, Kate Sheppard, expressed it:

…all that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.

So, want to honour the amazing women who made New Zealand the first country in the world to have the vote?  Here’s how to dress like a suffragist, New Zealand style:

1. Wear a white camellia:

Portrait of an unknown suffragette (sic), Charles Hemus Studio Auckland, circa 1880

The white camellia was the symbol of the New Zealand suffrage movement then, and now.  Suffragists wore them and gave them to members of parliament.  It was probably chosen both for practical reasons (white camellias are plentiful throughout winter and the most important voting seasons in Parliament), and for its association with purity and delicacy, as campaigners wanted to emphasise that they would not be any less feminine with the vote.

There is even a variety of white camellia named the ‘Kate Sheppard’ in honour of the most famous New Zealand suffragist, with some planted around Parliament.

A white camellia pinned to your jacket is the easiest, and arguably most appropriate, way to honour the suffragist movement.

2. Break out those high necklines and super-puffed sleeves:

National Council of Women, 1896

The New Zealand suffrage movement was very closely tied to the Womens Christian Temperance Union, and attempts to get prohibition passed in New Zealand.  Many vote campaigners were in other respects, conservative rather than radical in their social outlook.  Quite a few were wives or daughters of ministers.  Over 1/4 of the women in New Zealand signed the final petition to parliament that resulted in the suffrage bill being passed.  That makes New Zealand suffragists almost the norm, rather than the exception, and most of them wore standard fashionable dress of the 1880s and 1890s.

Suffragist sisters Stella, Kathleen and Elizabeth (then) Henderson in the 1890s. Elizabeth would go on to be the first female MP in NZ.

Standard fashionable dress of the 1880s & 90s was tightly fitted bodices, high necklines, and, in the years after New Zealand women got the vote, when they were campaigning for the right to run for parliament, and other measures to improve women’s lives, SUPER puffed sleeves, like those demonstrated above in a photograph of the first National Council of Women, formed in 1896, or below, on Scottish born NZ suffragist Elizabeth Caradus.

New Zealand suffrage campaigner Elizabeth Caradus and her husband James c1900

If you want to go for the immediately-before-the-vote look, be inspired by the Henderson sisters above, or Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, in her fitted late 1880s-early 1890s ensemble:

New Zealand suffrage campaigner Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, ca. 1890

3. Dress for work

The New Zealand women’s rights movement was very egalitarian, with a strong emphasis on improving the overall condition for all women.  Notable suffragist Harriet Morison (the namesake of my 1893 Singer sewing machine) was Vice President of the New Zealand Tailoresses Union, and a tireless campaigner for women workers rights.

Some politicians tried to discredit the suffrage movement based on the inclusion of working women.  Sir George Whitmore was sure no-one would take a petition signed by “the Tailoresses’ Unions and women of the working-class in the towns” seriously.

After women gained the right to vote we had working women in other forms, like Elizabeth Yates, who was elected mayor of Onehunga in 1894, making her the first female mayor in the British Empire, and earning her the personal congratulations of Queen Victoria, or other working politicians, like the first female Member of Parliament.

Elizabeth Yates, mayor of Onehunga from 1894, and first female mayor in the British Empire

New Zealand didn’t elect its first female Member of Parliament until 1933, when long-time campaigner Elizabeth Reid McCoombs (nee Henderson – see her with her sisters above), was elected.   Women weren’t allowed to run for Parliament until 1919.

Elizabeth Reid McCombs, possibly while she was New Zealand’s first woman Member of Parliament. Taken by an unknown photographer circa 1933

4. Rock your knickerbockers (or any form of bifurcation):

Wedding of James Reeve Wilkinson and Kate (Katrin) Walker, wedding photograph published in The New Zealand Graphic on 3 March 1894, original in the collection of the Auckland City Library

While radical dress reform wasn’t an intrinsic part of the New Zealand suffrage movement, the same social climate that allowed vote reform encouraged a wider re-think of the roles of women. One area that attracted a lot of media attention was dress reform.  Advocates held that women’s dress was unhealthy and cumbersome, and that a more ‘rational’ costume would consist of a less fitted bodice, and some form of knickerbockers or bloomers.  They felt that making women’s dress more practical on a daily basis was important for advancing their role in society.

Bride Kate Walker and groom James Reeves Wilkinson put ideals into action at their 1894 wedding, with the entire bridal party, men and women alike, blissfully bifurcated.  Their wedding caused a sensation, with accounts (ranging from sympathetic to scathing) published in major newspapers across New Zealand.  The bridal ensembles were designed by Canterbury College (later University) student Alice Burns, who had been banned from wearing her own knickerbockers, even hidden under a skirt, to her university classes.

Christchurch City Libraries holds a wonderful image of Maori women in knickerbockers from 1906.

5. Get on your bikes!

Even if they didn’t advocate knickerbockers on a daily basis, the New Zealand suffrage movement was closely linked to bicycling.  The first all-womens cycling club in New Zealand, the Atalanta Cycling Club, was organised in Christchurch (the epicentre of the womens rights movement in NZ) in 1892.  Kate Sheppard and dress reformer Alice Burns were both members.  The ability to travel freely that bicycling gave women, and the practicality and safety that bloomers gave female cyclists over skirts, are credited with assisting women’s suffrage and the dress reform movement in New Zealand.

The cycling costume & dress reform as discussed in Puck

Bifurcated bicycling costumes, ca 1896

The Atalantean’s originally advocated bloomers or knickerbockers for all their outings, but faced such opposition from the public, and thrown stones, that they reverted to skirts in 1893.  Members began wearing bloomers for cycling again as they gradually became more acceptable to the general public.

Cyclists In Thames, New Zealand, around 1895 (more likely 1900), via Wikipedia

6. Crop your hair short:

Another of the more radical forms of rational dress was cropped hair on women.  In an era when indoor plumbing was rare, and hot running water even more so, washing and maintaining long hair was a chore.  Consequently, daring dress reformers, like our lady of the camellia, chopped theirs off:

Portrait of an unknown suffragette (sic), Charles Hemus Studio Auckland, circa 1880

Notice her heavy chain necklace?  I think it’s fabulously and fascinatingly modern, but also wonder if its a commentary about women being enchained by their lack of enfranchisement.

Other options:

At least one post-vote writer was of the opinion that what was really holding women back was their lack of pockets, and that the ultimate in suffragette dress would be something endowed with a multitude of these practical features!  We’re still bewailing the lack of pockets in manufactured clothing today, but if you sew your own you can add pockets to almost everything!

Just be fabulous.  We’ve all seen that image of Kate Shepperd on the #10 bill, but did you realise there are other views of the same dress, and they are AMAZING?  The dress is now in the collection of the Canterbury Museum, and studying and recreating it is one of my life goals.

Kate Sheppard 1905

Further reading:

Women’s Movement on Te Ara, the New Zealand Encyclopedia

New Zealand women and the vote,

A Leap Into the Light.   A history of the New Zealand women’s rights movement at NZ Geo

How the Bicycle changed Women’s Fashion, NZ Herald

Kate Sheppard, Christchurch City Libraries.

Kate Sheppard on Te Ara, the New Zealand Encyclopedia





The ideal WWI figure Part IV: staying fashionable and supporting a full bust, 1910s style

In Part IV of The Ideal WWI Figure, let’s look at how women with full busts achieved support and the fashionable silhouette of the period.

One of the most common questions I get asked about the Rilla Corset is how to wear it/what you do for bust support if you are very full busted, as it sits below the bust.

The Scroop Rilla Corset Pattern

To answer that question, let’s go back to the source, and look at period accounts, illustrations, and extant examples of bust supporting garments.  There is no better way to find out how to support your bust then to see how it was actually done in period.

Woman modelling a corset, Ca. 1921, NYPL digital collection

As we’ve seen from looking at the figure ideals in the 1910s over the last three posts in the series, the ideal WWI bust, whether small or big, was low and drooping, rather than high and perky, as is the modern bust ideal.

Pictoral Review, April 1916, thedreamstress.com13

Quaker Oats ad in Pictoral Review, April 1916,

This makes the WWI era attitude to bust support quite different to modern attitudes.  Today we try to lift the bust and make it sit out from the body, and we support the bust in part from the shoulders, to hold it as high as possible.

Keeping your bust comfortable, while letting it sit as low as possible, requires a totally different type of undergarments, and a totally different type of bust support: one dependent on compressing your bust, rather than lifting and hanging it from the shoulders.

The first important layer in bust support in the 1910s is the chemise or combinations.  Some advertisements show chemises like this one: soft, flimsy little things like this, that would provide almost no support:

Harrod’s La Vida Corset advertisement, 1918

While the one above will do almost nothing in the way of bust support, the right chemise or combination, such as #2 shown in the advertisement below, made out of slightly heavier fabric (a sturdy lawn rather than a fragile voile) can provide a lot of support.  Wearing History has a nearly identical combination pattern.

A home made lingerie set Page 3 Wanganui Chronicle, 26 February 1916, Page 3

The winter alternative to a chemise was the knitted, elasticated union suit, which, just like a very firm singlet camisole of knit fabric, or a very light sports bra, will provide some amount of support.

The Designer, October 1916,

Setsnug ad in The Designer, October 1916

Over the chemise or the union suit goes the corset, and that can also help a lot with bust support.  The most important thing to keep in mind when making a WWI era corset is that it should NOT lift your bust.  The ideal bust is as low as possible, so the corset either needs to sit completely below the bust, so it can’t lift it up, or widen out enough so that the bust sits down in the corset.

Note the description of the corset for this 1916 Gossard’s corset ad for the ‘Ideal Large Above the Waist figure’: “models with special deep gores in the front that lower bust”:

Gossard Corsets ad, The Designer Oct 1916,

And see how the corset described flares out below the bust, allowing the bust to sit down in the corset:Gossard Corsets ad, The Designer Oct 1916,

With a sturdy chemise/combination pulled snugly down into a well fitted corset, which has room for the bust to sit down into the front fullness in the corset, many women, even with larger busts, will find they have enough support to feel comfortable.

The amount of support given will definitely not be as much as we’re used to with modern bras, but that is period correct.  Even as a barely-B cup I found not wearing a bra quite disconcerting for the first few days of wearing purely 1910s clothes for my Fortnight in 1916 experiment, but I quickly got used to it, and found the undergarments quite comfortable.  Other women who have tried it have reported similar things, with the largest-busted women I’ve spoken to who finds just chemises and corsets perfectly supportive is upwards of an E cup (actual E, not DD).

If you don’t feel comfortable with just a chemise and corset, or if you’re trying to achieve the most fashionable figure possible, the in-period solution was a firm, structured garment which went over the corset, supporting and compressing the bust into the most desirable shape.

These could be called, variously: brassieres, bandeaus, bust correctors, bust confiners, bust forms, and dress forms (very similar looking devices for adding to the bustlines of less-well endowed ladies, like the central ‘Nature’s Rival’ model above, were also called brassieres, bust correctors, bust forms, as well as bust distenders (!), bust improvers, and bust enhancers).

I’ll use brassieres as a general catch-all term for the rest of this post.

Corset H&W Brassiere, 1911-14

Corset H&W Brassiere, 1911-14 via

Early-mid 1910s brassieres which provided maximum shaping and support were princess seamed garments of firm fabric, generally with flat felled seams to provide some structure, and often with additional boning.

Corset H&W Brassier 1911-14, via

Here is a front-buttoning example from Abiti Antichi, with back lacing which provides flexibility in sizing:

Bust confiner, 1910s, Abiti Antichi

Bust confiner, 1910s, Abiti Antichi

Bust confiner, 1910s, Abiti Antichi

If you want to make your own, HistoricallyDressed has provided a pattern taken from an original period example, or a reasonable make-do version could be hacked from any well-fitted-to-your figure princess seamed bodice pattern.

For support with less structure, catalogues also show simple rectangles of fabric gathered or pleated into boned side seams, to provide compression and support in a different way.

New York Styles, 1919-20

New York Styles, 1919-20 via

In contrast to the boned and shaped brassieres shown above, brassieres from this period could be extremely delicate and provide very little additional support, even in large sizes.  This example from my collection is made for someone with a 40″-44″ bust measure, but has no shaping other than that provided by beaded ribbon drawstrings, and is made of fine silk.

An early 20s brassiere/camisole,

An early 20s brassiere/camisole,

As the 1910s progressed and the fashionable bust became smaller, the most structured and confining brasseries changed from garments with distinctly curved princess seams, to less shaped garments which were firmly focussed on bust compression.

Lingerie Whimsicalities And Moulders Of Form, Feb 1914, via NYPL digital collections

This example is dated to ca 1915 by Kent State, but would have been fashionable throughout the later 1910s, and very helpful in achieving the flatter look favoured in the second half of the 1910s

This very similar brassier has been dated to the 1920s-30s, but is probably from between 1917-1924.  The quilted stitching on the bust bodice would assist in creating the correct shape and form:

Note the hooks on both of those brassieres, which would clip to the corset worn with the brassier to keep it firmly in place.

These would help to compress and flatten the bust, achieving the straighter, waistless, bustless figure favoured at the very end of the 1910s, while providing support to a larger bust.  None of them, however, completely obliterate the bust.

From the very curved, boned early 1910s styles, to the chest-flatterning early-20s bandeaus of these examples can be worn with the Rilla corset or similar 1910s styles.

If you do 1910s impressions a lot, what do you do for bust support?

Has anyone else tried wearing just a chemise and 1910s style corset for extensive periods of time and how did you find?   Did you ever get used to the bra-less feeling?  It took me two days to get used to it, but once I did it felt quite natural and comfortable.

Rate the Dress: An early 1880s garland of autumnal flowers

Sorry that posts have been a bit delayed and spotty.  We’re having internet connectivity issues, and the internet suppliers in NZ leave a bit to be desired in terms of customer service (why does it take them 5-7 business days to deliver a new modem, when I can have a zip or a load of manure delivered the next day, even on a Saturday?!?).

Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Coutts, received generally rave reviews last week, with nothing below a 7, and over half of her ratings a perfect 10, with the general consensus being that her dress suited her personality perfectly, and was striking without detracting from her face.  9.3 out of 10, because while it suited the person to a T, it wasn’t a showstopper.

This week, a black (yes, it is black, not navy) silk reception gown decorated with a garland of embroidery in shades of maroon and amethyst, with cream flowers:

What do you think? Is the textural mix of slick satin and fluffy chenille working?  What about the muted reds on black?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10