A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1914

Fashion in the street in New York, 1914

Fashion in the street in New York, spring 1914

1914 was a year of many firsts: A patent was granted for the first air conditioner; the first long distance telephone call was placed from New York to San Francisco; the first official celebration of Mother’s Day was held in the U.S.; and the Foxtrot was danced for the first time. Transportation improvements resulted in the first one-way streets and electric traffic lights, and the first scheduled airline flights took place between St. Petersburg and Tampa Florida. Steamboats first started passing through the Panama Canal and the Greyhound bus company was founded in Minnesota. In the field of sports, Babe Ruth played his first professional baseball game, and the game of hockey was re-organized with the Stanley Cup becoming an international prize for professional hockey teams.

Afternoon dresses by Doucet, summer 1914

Afternoon dresses by Doucet, Paris, summer 1914

In entertainment George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion premiered to rave reviews, and the first film serial, ‘The Perils of Pauline’ debuted, (contrary to the cliche Pauline was never tied to the railroad tracks in the original series.) Mary Pickford was the top box office draw and Charlie Chaplin soared in popularity after performing in several comedic films as the little tramp.

Canadian Cavalry uniform, 1914

Canadian Cavalry uniform, 1914

1914 had many sad headlines: The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo; Over 1,000 men, women, and children were lost when the passenger ship Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence river after colliding with a Norwegian collier; A male servant working for American architect Frank Lloyd Wright set the architect’s Wisconsin home on fire and murdered Wright’s mistress, two of her children and four employees with an axe. Unrest continued in Ireland and Mexico but the worst conflict of all was precipitated by the June 28 assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, by 19 year old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The assassination escalated as nations took sides until by the end of the summer most of the world was embroiled in the Great War of 1914-1918. This was a new type of war that saw many civilian casualties, like those who died in Belgian cities from aerial bombings by German Zeppelins.

Satin suit by Martial & Armand, Paris, autumn 1914

Satin suit with shorter, fuller hemline, by Martial & Armand, Paris, autumn 1914

The Suffragette movement continued to make headlines when Mary Richardson took a meat cleaver to Velasquez’ posterior portrait of Venus at the National Gallery in London. The onset of war disarmed the activities of the suffragette movement, although ultimately the War became a catalyst for most women winning the vote in many countries.

The War also brought new words to the English language: cockpit, prop (short for propeller), air raid, backpack and the German blessing ‘Gesundheit’ for a sneeze. Sports became an adjective – sports car, sports section (as in a newspaper), and sports wear. From the world of baseball came ‘dugout’ and ‘softball’ and from boxing came the word ‘jab’ and the phrase ‘saved by the bell’. The first scientific studies for measuring intelligence inspired the slang words for an intelligent mind: ‘noodle’, ‘whiz’ and ‘brain’. From the automotive world came ‘stick’ (gear shift), and ‘skid-mark’. From the criminal world came the street slang: ‘stash’ (for hoard), shill (decoy for gambler), shakedown, and snow (cocaine). Other slang words that infiltrated everyday language included: posh, doohickey, prat (fool), heel (contemptible person), and drag (puff on cigarette).

Evening dress with low tied sash, December 1914

Evening dress with low tied sash, December 1914

Top charting songs of 1914 included ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’, ‘By the Beautiful Sea’, ‘St. Louis Blues’, and ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. New food included sourball candies and Fettuccine Alfredo was first served in a restaurant in 1914 Rome, although the creamy pasta was not internationally famous until the 1920s.

Fashions for spring 1914 showed little change from the slim silhouette of the previous year but by autumn skirts were becoming fuller and styles downplayed excessive ornamentation and bright colours. American Vogue magazine editor Edna Woolman Chase held a model parade on November 4, 1914 to showcase fashions from New York based designers, but American styles still followed the lead from London and Paris.

The London Guardian on October 26, 1914 asserted that dress should still be becoming during wartime “It is clearly a woman’s duty to keep herself well dressed, though it may be on a slightly more economical scale than usual.” The most economical way to dress consisted of a blouse worn with a skirt of velvet, wool, or satin.

Some military influence found its way into fashion including tailored coats. Wool suits and coats were often trimmed with bands or edges of fur and waistlines sometimes featured a loosely tied sash or heavy cord belt.

By the end of the year, the black dress had become a sombre wardrobe necessity as a courtesy for the feelings of others. Anything garishly colourful was considered inappropriate, but suits and coats in dark and warm shades of brown, emerald green, and navy blue were popular alternatives to black.

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.
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