A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1917

Mata Hari in her ‘hoochie-koochie’ costume

The biggest headlines of 1917 continued to be about the Great War: Dutch dancer Mata Hari was arrested in Paris as a German spy and executed by firing squad; Mustard Gas was used for the first time by Germany at the battle of Ypres; and Canadian troops distinguished themselves with victories at the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

Anti-German sentiment lead the U.K. Kennel Club to officially rename the German Shepherd breed as Alsatian Wolf Dogs. In a similar anti-German gesture, King George V officially changed the last name of the British Royal Family from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to the more English sounding Windsor. In America, sauerkraut was commonly called ‘Victory Cabbage’.

Brazil, Greece, China, and the U.S. entered the war on the side of the Allies. Support in the U.S. to enter the War soared after the decoded contents of an intercepted telegram from the German Foreign Secretary to the German ambassador to Mexico were made known. The telegram proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico that offered Mexico the return of part of the Southwestern United States it had owned before 1845.

Women’s wartime occupational dress

Despite popular support to enter the war, U.S. volunteers were not forthcoming, and voluntary enlistment was also falling in Canada. Both countries introduced conscription – an unpopular wartime measure.

Rebellion was rife in 1917: The Green Corn Rebellion by Oklahoma farmers against conscription; race riots in St. Louis, Missouri; anti-war anarchists in Milan; a general strike in Spain, 30,000 French troops refusing to go to the trenches at Missy-aux-Bois. These were small compared to the Russian Revolution. It began as a strike by Industrial workers over food shortages in Moscow, and escalated into riots that lead to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and the overthrow of the provisional government by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik-lead October Revolution.

After seizing power, Bolsheviks leaked the content of the Sykes–Picot Agreement that outlined how Britain, France, and Russia had pre-determined how they would divide up territory from a defeated Ottoman Empire. After Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force defeated the Ottoman Empire at decisive battles in Palestine, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared British support for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Although the state of Israel would not exist until 1948, Finland seceded from the former Russian Empire, and Denmark sold its islands in the West Indies for $25 million to the U.S., who renamed them the Virgin Islands.

Sept 10, 1917

The year was plagued by massive explosions. Munition accidents levelled factories in the U.S. at Kingsland, New Jersey and Chester, Pennsylvania, and in the U.K. at Silvertown, Essex. The Battle of Messines opened with the British Army detonating nineteen mines in subterranean tunnels behind German lines, killing 10,000 soldiers. However, the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons, occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A freighter carrying munitions exploded, after colliding with another freighter in the city’s harbor, levelling 325 acres of downtown Halifax, killing 2,000 and injuring 9,000 – many blinded by flying glass. The cities of Atlanta, Georgia and Thessaloniki, Greece were also devastated by massive fires that left thousands homeless.

Faeries in the bottom of the garden, 1917

Endless news of war and death caused many to search for hope through the supernatural. Spiritualism grew as more attended seances in search of contacting departed loved ones. Three Portuguese children claiming to have monthly visitations by an angel was called the miracle of Fátima; and photographs taken in Cottingley, Yorkshire purportedly caught faeries on film – a hoax eventually admitted by the child creators in 1981.

Women’s rights made advancements in 1917. Russia’s Provisional government extended the vote to women, and Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman member of the United States House of Representatives. In Canada, women who were wives, widows, mothers, sisters or daughters of men in service got the federal vote franchise.

1917 firsts include: the invention of the toggle light switch, Marshmallow Fluff and Vichyssoise soup; the introduction of the Dobermann Pinscher breed, the founding of the Lions Club, the creation of the National Hockey League in Montreal; the opening of the Quebec Bridge in Montreal (still the longest cantilever bridge in the world); The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded; Cartier introduced the ‘tank’ wrist watch; Converse produced its first ‘All-Stars’ sneaker, and sanitary napkins made from surgical wadding, were first used by field nurses (not made commercially available until 1920 under the brand name Kotex).

New Words for 2017 came from the theatre of war: flame-thrower, aircraft carrier, camouflage (from French for disguise), the contractions ammo and sub, the phrase a.w.o.l. (pronounced as four letters), a dove (referring to a person who advocates peace), and duffel bag (named for the town of Duffel, Belgium). From soldier’s slang came: cooties (lice), Aussie (Australian), Kiwi (New Zealanders), s.o.l. (shit out of luck), umpteenth (indefinite number of times), Flea Market (translated from Paris’ marche aux puces), the phrase toot sweet (coined from the mangled French of American soldiers trying to say tout de suite (right away)), and the word French used as a verb to refer to oral sexual activity. From the world of politics we got: Soviet, Bolshevik, and red (referring to a radical communist). From the world of psychology we added: dysfunctional, introvert, and persona. And from popular slang came: cuties (pretty women), lounge lizard (early term for gigolo), punk (hoodlum), hokum (melodramatic nonsense), and cocktail party – the latest social event.

Theda Bara from the film ‘Cleopatra’, 1917

Top songs of 1917 included: Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here, Livery Stable Blues, Tiger Rag, Darktown Strutters Ball, For Me and My Gal, Over There, I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, Mad’moiselle From Armentieres, ‘Til the Clouds Roll By, and Poor Butterfly. Top Films of 2017 were Cleopatra with Theda Bara, and two films starring Mary Pickford: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and The Poor Little Rich Girl.

With most young men in uniform, men’s civilian fashion looked much the same in 1917 as it had in 1916, although casual styles were gaining popularity – sweaters were replacing jackets, and cloth caps were popular for informal daytime wear. For women, hemlines hovered between the ankle and calf – being a little longer for formal wear. Dresses were looser fitting, with fuller cut arms and bloused or surplice (wrap-over) bodices. Loose-fitting sash belts instead of tight cummerbund waists, and knitted wool or jersey silk or rayon sweater-coats were gaining popularity. You could say this was the year sportswear began, although it was not yet called that. The following film shows American fashions from spring 1917 – the tighter ankle-length hemline is only fashionable in the U.S. by this time. Canadian and European fashions have wider, and usually shorter for daywear, hemlines to allow freer movement.

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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6 Responses to A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1917

  1. Deb says:

    Thanks Jonathan. I love this piece.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks – I enjoy recapping a year’s history from a century ago – it puts everything into perspective. Now isn’t so bad!

  2. Liza D. says:

    Wonderful post, Jonathan, thank you! So much fascinating information. The film at the end is amazing (not so slim as we tend to imagine they were back then, but my goodness, those tiny, narrow feet!). My own grandmother would have been 20 (or nearly so) that year. Your post puts life at that time into broad perspective. Will share this on my page. Happy New Year! – Liza

  3. Lots of great information here. That film was quite delightful to watch. I could not help but wonder what type of flooring she was actually walking on as her movement was so constrained, it did not seem it could only have been the shoes and the skirt that was causing this. Love that veiled hat she wore and of course the buckled shoes.

    • Jonathan says:

      Her hemline was quite narrow, which is only typical of American fashions by 1917 – the world at war has moved to wider hemlines to allow freer movement by 1917. Not sure what surface she is walking on – but her shoes do appear to be VERY tight and not comfortable!

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