Hillary Clinton’s choice to wear white for the third general election debate has been widely interpreted to have an historic inspiration, referencing the long history of women’s suffrage. This isn’t the first time Hillary Clinton wore all white—on July 28, 2016, she accepted the Democratic nomination clad in an all-white pantsuit. Geraldine Ferraro, too, wore white in her history-making 1984 moment, when she delivered her acceptance speech as the first female vice president candidate for a major party ticket.
Shirley Chisholm donned white in 1969 when she became the first African American woman elected to Congress. Three years later, in the posters for her ground-breaking campaign as the first African American woman to run for president on a major party ticket, she also wore white.
Why white? Well, we can thank an early British suffragette for that. Founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was an early, often militant suffragist group. In 1908, the honorary treasurer of WSPU, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, chose three colors to unify participants during a demonstration in London’s Hyde Park: white for purity, purple for dignity and green for hope. Around 30,000 women participated in the rally with between 250,000 to 500,000 additional observers, and the colors allowed the group to show cohesion. Well aware of the effect clothing could have on their movement, many British suffragists wore long white dresses and skirts, choosing to dress both fashionably and conventionally as they fought for a woman’s right to vote. The branding and marketing of the movement spread when Pankhurst’s youngest daughter, Sylvia, created a Women’s Fair in 1909 that sold suffragist merchandise.
The U.S. suffragist movement is often credited with beginning in 1848 when 300 people attended the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, but the colors would not make their way to America until later, brought over by those involved in the British movement. White and purple remained, but green was replaced by gold, a choice derived from the Kansas state symbol, the sunflower, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began their stumping for woman’s suffrage in 1867. It was still white, however, that was the predominant color, and the ensuing decades have seen several significant symbolic uses. In 1916, at the Democratic National Convention held in St. Louis, suffragists staged “The Golden Lane,” which forced delegates to navigate through a long line of white-clad women, bearing golden sashes and umbrellas. And more than 60 years later, in 1978, nearly 100,000 women dressed similarly when they marched on Washington in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Today, the long, hard-fought struggle for women’s suffrage is still being honored.