Hillary Clinton’s all-white pantsuit at the DNC recalls centuries of American feminist history

Image: Reuters/Gary Cameron
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Hillary Clinton, the first woman in history to become a major party nominee for the US presidency, wore a white pantsuit during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The pantsuit was sophisticated and professional, appropriate for the task of addressing voters as their potential next president.

It also carried the symbolic weight of more than a century of American feminist history.

Women in the suffrage movement, which fought for decades to secure a woman’s right to vote around the turn of the 20th century, were often encouraged to wear white during parades and demonstrations. Historians believe it likely represented purity and the movement’s elevated ideals. It was first used by British suffragettes, who chose white, green, and purple as the colors of their cause. The American movement then adopted them, later replacing the green frequently with gold.

During Clinton’s historic speech at the convention, some
women recognized the link to history right away.

For early feminists, clothes were about more than just appearance. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that fashion and society’s beauty standards kept women oppressed. Turn of the century clothing could be physically difficult for women to move around in. When Amelia Bloomer popularized wearing loose trousers under a skirt, fashion reformers saw it as a way to “physically and spiritually free women of the cumbersome hoop [skirt].” Critics railed against the look, labeling it an assault on femininity.

All those echoes were present as Clinton, whose has been saying for two decades that “Women’s rights are human rights” stood on the DNC stage, making the case that she should become the first female president of the US.