A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1916


Page from 1916 Scrapbook of fashions

The Great War dominated headlines in 1916. German zeppelins, which had bombed dozens of towns and cities early in the year, ceased their attacks by the end of the year after British and French airmen learned how to successfully destroy the airships. Aerial warfare was now the domain of planes: Boeing began making airplanes in the U.S., and BMW was founded as a manufacturer of airplane engines. Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, began his tally of 80 successful aerial combat missions. Many of the greatest battles in military history were fought during 1916: Jutland – the largest naval battle in history; Verdun – the longest battle of the war; and the Somme – the bloodiest, which also saw the introduction of the tank. As the war worsened, U-boat activity increased in the Atlantic, and conscription was introduced in Britain.


The Queen, March 4, 1916

An Easter uprising of Irish Republicans and an Arab revolt against the ruling Ottoman Turks led by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), added more fronts to England’s war-weary year. The U.S. was also fighting on a number of fronts ranging from several “Banana wars” in Central America and Pancho Villa in Mexico to homegrown terrorism by anti-war anarchists who set off a bomb at a San Francisco parade, killing 10.

War also brought innovation: Daylight Savings time was introduced, and with a better understanding of blood types, and the use of refrigeration and anti-coagulants, blood transfusions became a standard medical procedure that has ultimately saved millions of lives this past century.

Tragedies outside the realm of war in 1916 include an avalanche in the Alps that killed as many as 10,000 Italian and Austrian troops, shark attacks along the New Jersey shore that killed four swimmers, and a fire that destroyed Canada’s original parliament buildings in Ottawa.

Bellas Hess catalogue, 1916

Bellas Hess catalogue, 1916

The Labour movement was making inroads in the U.S.: railroad workers were limited to eight-hour days, and shoe manufacturer Endicott Johnson introduced a 40-hour work week. Women were also making strides. The U.S. elected its first Congresswoman, and Women in Western Canada received the right to vote in Provincial elections. Birth control was a controversial issue in 1916: Margaret Sanger, who opened the first U.S. birth control clinic in Brooklyn, and activist Emma Goldman were both arrested for spreading information about contraception.

In the world of Art, a painting by Norman Rockwell first appeared on the cover of a Saturday Evening Post magazine, and Tristan Tzara published the Dada manifesto in Zurich. Oscar Asche’s hit musical ‘Chu Chin Chow’, based on the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, premiered in London, while top box office film of the year, Intolerance, was a three-hour epic about the history of intolerance. D.W. Griffith created the film as an antidote for his 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which had fueled a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

The first Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tournament was held in 1916, as was the first National Women’s Swimming Championship. Kellogg’s All Bran was introduced this year, as were the first hybrid ‘Honeydew’ melons – maybe even appearing at the first self-serve supermarket ‘Piggly Wiggly’ in Memphis, Tennessee. Bleach, which was being made industrially to disinfect water supplies, was first promoted as a household disinfectant called Clorox, by the the wife of one of the manufacturing partners. The liquid bleach was also good at whitening cotton lingerie.


American Vogue, August 15, 1916

Top songs in 1916 were less sentimental than previous years. Hawaiian melodies were popular such as: ‘Hello, Hawaii, How Are You?”, and “Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wachi Woo”. The most enduring song of 1916 was probably ‘Pretty Baby’.

You might be ‘Sitting Pretty’ in 1916 – one of the many words and phrases coined that year. Other new words and phrases for 1916 include ‘Geek’ and ‘Goof’, and if you own a car you might ‘rev’ or ‘idle’ the engine, or maybe you are a ’Mobster’ or a ‘Realtor’, a word that was patented by the National Association of Real Estate Boards. Other new words came from the field of war: Battleship Grey, Trench Coat, Flyer (aviator), and Blimp. Hollywood gave us: Projectionist, Newsreel, Screenplay, Pre-release, Slapstick (comedy), and a Frame (of film). Psychologists defined the terms: Dysfunction, Homoerotic, Bisexual, and Ambisexual.

Fashion in 1916 tended towards either utilitarian or youthful, feminine styles. Day clothing was usually suity and serious, tailored in dark colours and made from practical textiles. Footwear manufacturers were making boots with wool gaiters to save on leather for military use. Most daytime clothing and hats avoided extravagant ornamentation – too much frou-frou was unpatriotic. Frilled evening clothes aimed at the youthful, feminine silhouette with natural waistline, fitted bust and wide skirt. Bare upper arms emphasized a youthful styling. For men not in uniform, the slim cut suit emphasized a youthful physique – a look not unfamiliar in 2016.

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6 thoughts on “A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1916

  1. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – January 3, 2016 | The Vintage Traveler

  2. There’s plenty to think about in that article — thank you. I especially enjoyed your comparison of men’s suits — The 2016 super-short, one-button suit looks even more ridiculous next to the suits of 1916. There’s a difference between the slim fit look and the “my jacket is shrinking” look! Happy new year.

    • That’s why I find fashion so fascinating because it is the result of everything that happens around it!

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