100 Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1918

One of the last images taken of the Tsar and family

In March, 1918 the Russian Bolshevik government ceded Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Finland to Germany in exchange for peace. Later that year, the Russian capital was moved from Petrograd to Moscow, and the former Tsar and his family were executed. In August, a civil war broke out between anti-Bolsheviks ‘Whites’ and Bolsheviks ‘reds’. Allied forces took over northern Russian sea ports to keep them from falling into German hands, and protect anti-Bolsheviks.

With the eastern front shut down after Russia’s withdrawl, German offensives turned their attention west, resulting in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. German submarines continued to successfully sink allied boats, including non-combat vessels. In June, the H.M.H.S. Llanndovery Castle, a hospital ship for Canadian forces, was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Only 24 survived because after the ship sank, the U-Boat surfaced to ram lifeboats and machine gun survivors. In October, the R.M.S. Leinster, an Irish mail and passenger ferry, was torpedoed with a loss of over 500.

In the U.S., daylight savings was adopted – a war measures act introduced in Germany and Austria in 1916 to save fuel. Shortages in steel resulted in American orders for concrete ships, although few were launched before the end of the war.

Dorothy Gish with women in uniform

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, author of the poem In Flanders Fields, died of pneumonia in January; German flying ace Baron Manfred von Richtofen (aka the Red Baron) was killed in a dogfight over France’s Somme Valley in April. That same month Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand, died of tuberculosis in prison. In October, Sergeant Alvin York, distinguished himself by capturing 132 German soldiers single-handedly. He became America’s most decorated soldier of the Great War.

Although there was no clear military victory by the Allies, the German people were hungry and in revolt, and the German army exhausted, especially against the infusion of fresh American forces. In early November Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria had ceased fighting, and Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany had abdicated. On November 11, German and Allied negotiators signed the armistice that would end the War. But even in the last few hours before the armistice took effect at 11 A.M., nine American commanders lead an assault on the Western Front that resulted in 11,000 casualties.

Woodrow Wilson visiting King George and Queen Mary, Dec 1918

From the dissolution of old empires, new states were born including: Hungary, Iceland, Armenia, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929). American president Woodrow Wilson outlined fourteen points for a world free from conflict that included: fair treatment of Germany, national boundaries determined by language, and the establishment of the League of Nations. However, his suggestion for the fair treatment of Germany was ignored. Germany was held accountable and would be required to pay reparations.

Aside from war, train wrecks lead the news: In Germany two ammunition trains exploded, killing 1,750, and three of the largest train wrecks in U.S. history collectively killed 280 passengers in Nashville, Tennessee; Brooklyn, New York; and Hammond, Indiana. Other non-war disasters making news included a forest fire in Minnesota that killed 559 and destroyed 25 communities, and the collapse and fire of viewing stands at Hong Kong’s Jockey Club that killed 604. An unusual tragedy occurred when the Canadian steamship Princess Sophia hit a reef off the coast of Alaska within sight of land, but bad weather kept rescuers at bay. The ship sank two days later taking the lives of all 355 on board but for one dog that swam to shore.

Face masks were common in the fall of 1918

Despite its name, the Spanish Influenza epidemic actually began in Kansas. Small outbreaks had occurred earlier but none were as deadly as the outbreak at Fort Riley, Kansas in March 1918 that resulted in 48 deaths. Recruits carried the mutated flu strain with them to Europe where the lethal virus then travelled around the world twice, peaking in the fall of 1918. Estimates of deaths from the epidemic run between 20 to 50 million – about 3% of the world’s population.

Snowy Egret


Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania abandoned the Julian calendar. In Russia, the day after January 31 became February 14 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the U.S. prohibited the killing of several species including Egrets, whose population had been decimated for the millinery trade. Other innovations of the year include the first ‘iron lung’ for polio victims, the Raggedy Ann doll, and the establishment of airmail in the U.S. The first airmail stamp depicted the flying Jenny, some of which were accidently printed upside down. Although recalled, one sheet got into circulation, and became one of the most collectable stamps in history.

Although the 19th amendment to enfranchise women in the U.S. failed to pass the Senate, Canadian women over the age of 21, and property owning British women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918. American women would win the vote in 1920.

The comic strip became a popular addition to many newspapers. Favourites in 1918 included Gasoline Alley, Ripley’s Believe it or not, Katzenjammer, and Champs and Chumps.

Theda Bara as Salome in heavy eye-shadow, 1918

Words coined in 1918 include a lot of slang likely used and brought home by soldiers: soppy (sentimental), harrumph, cheerio, snooty, rurban (suburban), chiseler (swindler), smackers (money), zing (energetic), blah (probably from the French blasé), dumbbell (stupid), shimmy, egghead, conk out, crumb (lousy person), SOB, and pushing up daisies. Some new words came from the theatre of war: home front, queueing, commissar, delouse, deferment (draft exemption), fox-hole, latrine, citation, trench warfare, triage, and windbreaker. From the world of fashion came lamé (a fabric shot with gold or silver threads), as well as eye-shadow, bob (as in hair) and peroxide blonde. Other words that debuted this year include sex-drive, contraceptive, and marijuana.

Mary Pickford, 1918

Most sports events were on hold because of the war, although the NHL finished its first year of existence with the Toronto Arenas winning the Stanley Cup over the Vancouver Millionaires. The top recording star of the year was Al Jolson, and top songs included: Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning, Over There, St. Louis Blues, and After You’ve Gone. Warner Brothers was established in 1918, but the top three films were made by other studios: Mickey, starring Mabel Normand, Stella Maris, starring Mary Pickford, and Tarzan of the Apes starring Elmo Lincoln.


Passing out doughnuts

While meatless and wheatless meals were promoted to combat wartime shortages, popular foods that year included doughnuts, which had been around forever, but were favourites with American troops, earning their nickname dough boys. Slumgullion, a stew made with hamburger meat and pasta, was also an inexpensive dish popular on the home front. New foods included Jemima brand pancake mix, and fortune cookies, invented by Chinese-American David Jung.

The Delineator, July 1918

Remade clothes to meet shortages in fabric

Throughout the year, leather, wool and linen became scarcer because they were essential for wartime use (boots, uniforms and airplane wings), fashion adjusted by using more cotton, silk, and fur instead. By the fall of 1918, fashion had been transformed since the start of the war four years earlier. Corsets were being displaced by lightly boned camisoles (bras). Sporty separates (sweaters, blouses, skirts) were sensible alternatives for everyday wear. Beneath slim, loosely fitted calf length skirts, boots with fabric legs, or shoes with silk or cotton stockings were now visible components of the fashionable silhouette. Hats could still be wide brimmed, but they slipped down the head to cover most of the hair, which was sometimes bobbed. Lipstick, eye-shadow, and rouge enhanced sex-appeal. Other fashion innovations during the year included: pyjamas for women, fringed dresses, ‘barrel’ shaped skirts, trench coats and other militaristic styles adapted for fashion.

‘Sleeping Suit’ pyjamas for air raids, spring 1918

Women’s magazines were encouraging patriotic wartime awareness when buying fashions that included remodelling pieces from past seasons: “In these serious times, clothes have become a serious subject… We jump at the chance to save a bit of material by following the vogue of the sleeveless blouse and the sleeveless coat… We (gladly) wear gingham and calico. We wear them in place of linen, knowing that there is little linen left in the world and that it is being used for new wings for our avions… We are enchanted with the substitution of silk and satin for our old friend serge, and the disappearance of fine woolens from the shops becomes not a hardship but an endowment policy, for whereas old clothes used to give us rather an abused feeling, we now find ourselves quite rich with an out-of-date French serge or fine gabardine that can be remodelled.” Delineator editorial, July 1918

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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4 Responses to 100 Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1918

  1. Information-packed post! I learned a lot. Fascinating, Jonathan. Thanks!

  2. Nancy Nichols says:

    So many of these events touched my family — great grandfather and grandma got the flu, grandma survived. Grandfather spent the end of 1918 at Ft. Dix, awaiting the call, but got Armistice and a very slow de-mob instead, thankfully, as he was set to be a machine gunner! Both grandmothers told me about those 20th century wartime economies (both wars!) and I have many photos of the make over and make do outfits. Thanks for all the fascinating posts! I look forward to 2018.
    Nancy N

    • Jonathan says:

      It’s incredible to think what they went through – puts today’s minor troubles in perspective. I come from a family that was mostly too old or too young for service, but I had a great aunt who was a nurse during WW1 and ended up in Juneau Alaska in 1918. As she aged and got dementia she remembered 1918 more clearly than yesterday and often talked about cleaning and dressing the bodies brought in from the Sophia.

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