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Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst

Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford, rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing more harm to the cause.

– Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), English suffragette.

I recently read an article in The Guardian by fashion author and lecturer Cally Blackman about how women of the suffragette movement recognized the role of fashion in reaching their goals. “Haunted by the stereotypical image of the ‘strong-minded woman’ in masculine clothes, pebble-thick glasses and galoshes created by cartoonists, they chose instead to present a fashionable, feminine image,” says Blackman.

The approach worked, with increasing membership and a certain cachet in sporting the suffragette color scheme – purple for loyalty, white for purity, and green for hope. This early branding was helped along by Selfridges and Liberty department stores, who sold tricolor striped ribbon to adorn hats and make belts and badges. Trained as an artist at the Royal College of Art, Sylvia Pankhurst designed for the cause much of what today we would call marketing material.

Suffragette_posterSpeaking of all this women’s lib stuff, did you know that October 23rd is the US release of the film Suffragette? The London premiere a couple of weeks ago was quite the affair with protestors storming the red carpet. Not to protest the movie but simply to use the event to bring attention to their cause against domestic violence.

In Suffragette our own Meryl Streep stars as Sylvia Pankhurst. Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan round out the cast.

What I want to know is – will we see 1900s-influenced fashions next year?

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What an event it was on a very hot October morning with costume designer Patricia Field and ah … sixty plus mostly young fashion students packed into the narrow ground floor of Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. To be honest I had no idea she’d be such a draw, particularly among the under 40s.

Ms. Field is known for costuming the long running HBO series Sex and The City and the film, The Devil Wears Prada starring Meryl Streep. Both the series and the film are very much last decade (and prior) and I would have thought perhaps a bit passé for the 20-something crowd. But I was wrong. The students knew her work, so well in fact that there were several nods to Ms. Field in the form of Carrie Bradshaw copycats – lots of stiletto heels, one woman in pink sported a name plate pendant, another went for the strands of chunky pearls paired with a t-shirt look, and another donned a slip dress, which wasn’t a bad choice given the record heat. These outfits were noticeable for their Ms. Field touch but actually, I was surprised how dated they appeared and I had to wonder if a better nod to the costumer known for mixing it up would have been to simply dress in one’s own unique style.

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Patricia Field takes a cigarette break just outside the back door of Britex Fabrics.

But all that aside, Ms. Field was delightful – humorous and down-to-earth. She roamed among the tables and shelves of beautiful fabrics chatting with people, finally stopping in the middle of the floor and settling in for a discussion about her career, which she said began with her shop in New York City and then the pivotal moment being when she got the SATC gig.

People asked for “juicy” stories of working with the cast of The Devil Wears Prada and Ms. Field obliged with a nice tidbit about Meryl Streep, who played nasty magazine editor Miranda Priestly. The two were discussing the character and the potential costumes and Ms. Streep asked about hose. “I told her I didn’t have a problem with her not wearing hose,” Ms. Field said and then she recounted Ms. Streep’s reaction: “Pat! My legs are going to be coming out of a limousine on huge screens.” Lesson learned. Bare legs on screen look big, wear hose!

When the inevitable question was asked – What advice would you give a want-to-be designer/stylist? (read celebrity) – Ms. Field said, “Love what you do, if you don’t love it you shouldn’t do it.” Good advice but not satisfying, I suppose, as the same question was asked repeatedly in several different ways.

A more interesting question was – What is fashion? Ms. Field commented that fashion is just suggestion and it’s up to us to play with it and make it our own. “You don’t need to be head to toe designer … at the end of the day you’re expressing yourself.”

Eager for different challenges, Ms. Field said she no longer takes on head costumer projects but she will hire herself out as a consultant. Currently she’s working on a new Darren Star (creator of SATC) television production set to premiere in January. But her real passion is directing films and she’s anxious to explore that world.

Project Runway contestants Richard Hallmarq and Emily Payne joined Ms. Field later in the discussion. Both commented that PR changed their lives, opened doors and created opportunities that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise, but the fashion biz is still a lot of hard work. Photo ops and more questions and then Ms. Field needed a cigarette break and it was time for this reporter to move along.

Thank you to Patricia Field and Britex Fabrics!

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