100 Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1919

In the wake of the end of the Great War and with the Spanish influenza pandemic in retreat, there must have been great relief to see 1918 come to an end and great hope for 1919. However, the new year got off to a bad start on January 19 when bizarre news came out of Boston Massachusetts of a two million gallon tank of molasses collapsing, creating a tidal wave of sticky black goo that killed 21 people and several horses. More would have died had there not been truth in the adage ‘slower than molasses in January’. 

Some of the more unusual news of the year include pianist Ignace Paderewski becoming the first premier of Poland, and the World Series in baseball being intentionally thrown by eight members of the Chicago White Sox who were bribed by a gambling syndicate.

Chicago White Sox, 1919

Extreme politics brought about general strikes, riots, demonstrations, and coups by Anarchists, Communists, Monarchists, Socialists, Bolsheviks, Nationalists, and Unionists in: Russia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Korea, Afghanistan, India, Egypt, China, Ireland, Mexico, Argentina, Greece, Turkey, Costa Rica, Honduras, Canada, and the United States.

With the European powers knocked back by the war and economy, the United States rose to become a world power. American President Woodrow Wilson worked to resolve international conflict and dismantle Empires to create world peace through collective security, democracy, disarmament, negotiation and self-determination. His plan was not fully implemented but many points were realized with the creation of the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference in January.

Prime Minister Lloyd George, Premier Vittoria Orlando, Premier Georges Clemenceau, and President Woodrow Wilson, May 27, 1919

The terms of the Paris Peace Conference left Germany fractured, partially occupied, and fully blamed for the war.  John Maynard Keynes resigned his position with the British at the Conference denouncing the treaty was ruinous for Germany and damaging to the international economy. Pope Benedict XV described the treaty as a “consecration of hatred” and a “perpetuation of war.” The stage was set for another war when Benito Mussolini formed the Fascist political movement in Milan later that year.

The closing of wartime industries lead to soaring unemployment and inflation throughout Europe and North America. Governments over-reacted to demonstrations and labour strikes, fearing a reprise of the Russian Revolution. In England, tanks were sent into the streets of London to quell a worker’s uprising. The American Federation of Labour was considered a Bolshevist threat by the U.S. government and police were sent to arrest picketers. Mass meetings were prohibited in Pennsylvania, and in Gary, Indiana, the army took over the city and declared martial law. A general strike in Winnipeg lead to the Mounted Police charging into a crowd of strikers, beating them with clubs and firing weapons, killing two. Meanwhile, anarchists were mailing bombs to American politicians and officials. Most of the bombs were intercepted, but eight exploded, injuring but not killing anyone. This lead to raids and the arrest of 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists across the country. 

Winnipeg General Strike, June 1919

In business, the Canadian National Railway was formed from a number of failed private rail companies to create the largest rail network in North America, and United Artists was established by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. Inventions of the year include the first pop-up toaster created by Charles Strite, Pyrex, and the paper shopping bag with handles made its debut.

Douglas Fairbanks, Oscar Price (president of UA), Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Feb 5, 1919

1919 was a year for aeronautic history. The first international air mail service took place between Seattle, Washington and Victoria, B.C.; the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was completed by Arthur Brown and John Alcock, winning a prize of 10,000 pounds; the first successful parachute jump was made; the first wedding held in a plane occurred over Houston, Texas; the first scheduled passenger service by airplane from Paris to London began; and the first round trip transatlantic airship (dirigible) journey was completed.

Gloria Swanson in Male and Female

In the art world, Mondrian begins painting his grid-based compositions, and the Bauhaus design school was founded by Walter Gropius in Weimer. Top songs of 1919 included: After You’ve Gone; I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles; How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree; Till We Meet Again; Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own; Poor Butterfly, and A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody. The top three grossing films of the year were: Miracle Man starring Lon Chaney; Male and Female, starring Gloria Swanson; and Daddy-Long-Legs starring Mary Pickford. Best-selling books included My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse; Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery; The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, and Night and Day by Virginia Woolf.

Backless dress modelled by Gladys Zielian, 1919

The ‘sunkist’ stamp first appeared on fruit from the California Grower’s Association, and the Hostess brand was created – chocolate cupcakes were their first big success. New words in 1919 included: airport, rum-runner, Soviet Union, pen-pal, pet-peeve, Ponzi scheme, sweet patootie, wonky, razz, rumba, shimmy, bimbo, basket-case, loony bin, compact (make-up case), backless (dress).

Fashion for men became more casual, even for business. Tall, stiff collars and black swallow tail coats were being displaced by tailored lounge suits and turn-down collars. Hard crowned top hats and bowlers were losing favour to soft felt hats like homburgs and fedoras, and wool caps. Trench coats transitioned from the battle field to city streets, and wrist watches became popular. Sportswear was on the rise – sweaters, slacks and blazers for men, jersey tops, knitted sweater coats, and even jodhpurs for riding and golf for women. In high fashion, the women’s silhouette was barrel shaped, consisting of cocoon-like coats, calf-length skirts (often pleated) and loose-fitting tunic tops and dresses with sash belts. High button boots were losing popularity in favour of shoes, although stockings remained opaque. The age of modern fashion was about to displace the old ways of dressing — Gabriel Chanel registered as a couturière and established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon, Paris in 1919. One of her first tasks was to determine her signature scent that became known as Chanel No. 5 – a feat she accomplished in 1919, although the scent was not sold commercially until 1921.

French fashions

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
This entry was posted in history. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.