Looking Back: Suffrage in a Corset

October 10, 2018

As of 2018 it has been 100 years since (most) Canadian women got the right to vote, bringing to fruition the lifetimes of work and sacrifice by dedicated suffragettes.  On May 24th 1918 white women across Canada were given the right to the vote, however it was not until the late 1940’s that Asian Canadian women got the vote, and it wasn’t until 1960’s that indigenous women willing to give up their status did.

With election season upon us, we would like to reflect on two historic trends that you may not think of as being strongly connected, women’s suffrage and corsets. 

In any time period, clothes often reflect the culture around them.  In the century leading up to women getting the vote, women’s clothes were tight, restrictive, and had severely limited mobility.  They limited the ability of women to do much physical activity without the help of a man.  While corsets had been in fashion for hundreds of years, and remained popular after 1918, tight lacing, the practice of tying the corset in order to get the smallest waist possible, was popular.  The Victorian ideal was an 18 inch waist.  Tight lacing was not practiced by everyone but those that did often suffered side effects and ill health. 

Suffragettes used many tools to get their message across during the early 1900’s, signs, banners, leaflets as well as the very clothes they wore while campaigning and marching.  Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement were also outspoken against the wearing of tight figure-altering corsets.  Not only were tight fitting corsets ditched, some suffragettes ditched them entirely.  Dresses with wide and higher hemlines were also preferred, allowing for more movement.

One of the greatest tools of the suffrage movement was the bicycle.  Cars were rare and expensive, only affordable to men who had higher paying jobs, and walking could only get activists so far.  The bike was less expensive and simple, but required shorter more flexible dresses and no tight corset to be able to ride.

When women took to the streets in the 1910’s to call for equal rights in voting, they were wearing the symbols of their emancipation, looser fitting clothes that allowed for more freedom of movement, as they demanded their own political and social freedoms. 

Here in Maple Ridge, the first woman to vote in a municipal election was school teacher Emily Trembath of Hammond.  According to historical records, she was known to be a well-educated and formidable woman who never married, a requirement for women who chose to pursue teaching as a career.  

If you are interested in learning more about the history of corsets and modern day corset making, join us for our “Speaking of Art and History” talk by Melanie Talkington on Thursday October 18th at 7pm at the ACT Studio Stage.