A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1920

Elite Styles, February 1920

Postwar Europe was still unsettled in 1920. More treaties were signed to end hostilities and recognize new nations and borders between: Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Britain accepted Irish Home Rule for the southern counties, was granted a Mandate for Palestine, and renamed East Africa as Kenya, declaring it a British colony. Wartime reparations were decimating the German economy, fueling the founding of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (aka Nazi party).

Women’s Hockey Team – The Swastikas, from Fernie, British Columbia, Canada, c. 1920. The swastika was a popular motif before it was adopted by the Nazi party, forever ruining the design’s reputation by association.

It was clear that the Great War had diminished the former European powers and the United States was rising to become a world leader. The U.S. had granted women the right to vote in 1920 and the American economy was expanding rapidly. An American residential building boom was redeveloping neighbourhoods and creating suburbs, and American industries were opening branch plants in other countries, especially Canada, curtailing foreign competition. 

March 1920 fashions

However, the U.S. had its own share of problems too. The Ku Klux Klan was revitalized in 1920, expanding their policy of hatred towards anyone not having a protestant Northern European background. Prohibition was signed into law but failed to curtail alcohol consumption, in fact, drunk driving and other alcohol-related arrests actually increased with Prohibition. The new law also gave rise to the mafia who made fortunes through rum-running – mostly from Canada and Cuba.

Despite its new role as a leader, the U.S. did not join the League of Nations which was created in 1920 using a framework outlined by President Woodrow Wilson. Instead, the U.S. adopted a policy of isolationism and focussed on the domestic spread of communism – even outlawing the American communist party. With the help of a young lawyer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer conducted raids against suspected radicals and deported thousands of communists and anarchists.

March 1920 fashions

On September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart carrying explosives was detonated on Wall Street in New York, killing thirty-eight people and injuring hundreds. It was the worst domestic terrorist attack in American history until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. The perpetrators were likely Italian-American anarchists seeking retribution for deportations, but nobody was ever apprehended.

South of the American border, Mexico’s decade-long revolution came to an end with a change in presidents and Pancho Villa’s surrender.

Jeanne Lanvin dress, July 1920

Notable disasters of the year include: The sinking of the French ship Afrique off the coast of France that killed all but 34 of the 609 passengers and crew; Thirty-seven tornados in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois killed 380 people on Palm Sunday – a month later tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi left 219 dead; The year’s worst disaster occurred in China when a magnitude 8.5 earthquake rocked the Gansu province leaving an estimated 200,000 dead.

1920 Firsts include: The first commercial radio station, WWJ Detroit, which began broadcasting on August 20 and aired the first news program on August 31; The founding of Dutch airlines KLM and Australian airlines Qantas; The inauguration of regular airmail service between New York and San Francisco, however, the U.S. postal service stopped allowing parents to ‘mail’ their children as parcel post (it was cheaper to send a child under 50 pounds by mail, than by train!); St. Paul, Minnesota introduced the first armored car, and in Detroit the first 4-way, 3-colour traffic light was installed; The hand-held hair dryer was invented in 1920, as was the band-aid and the cotton swab, although ‘Q-tips’ weren’t produced commercially until 1923, band-aids didn’t catch on until 1939, and the hand-held hair dryer did not become a common household appliance until the 1970s.

In sports, Babe Ruth was bought by the Yankees and set a 54 home run season record; Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight boxing title; and the race horse Man O’War won every race entered in 1920, setting records before being retired to stud. The Olympic games were held in Antwerp, Belgium where the Olympic Oath was recited for the first time and the Olympic flag, with its interlocking rings, was first flown. For those looking for less strenuous exercise, Pilates was introduced. 

1920 Olympic games participants

In the arts, the ‘Lost Generation’ of American writers who lived in Europe were becoming a force in literature. In 1920, Sinclair Lewis published Main Street, and F. Scott Fitzgerald debuted his novel This Side of Paradise. The best-selling author of 1920 was Zane Grey.

Top plays of the year included: Somerset Maugham’s East of Suez; Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones; and Jerome Kern’s musical Sally. Enrico Caruso gave his last public performance, and Canada’s Group of Seven artists were formed.

The top box office comedy stars were Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but the top grossing and critically acclaimed films were not comedies. There were films about womanly wiles in SexPollyanna, and The Flapper. The horror genre was launched with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Der Golem, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeThe Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks became the first superhero movie, but the top box office film was Something to Think About, starring Gloria Swanson. 

In popular music, the top dance bands were led by Art Hickman, Paul Whitman, and Ted Lewis, and the most popular singers were Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Marion Harris. The year’s top songs included: Rose of Washington Square, Alice Blue Gown, Japanese Sandman, St. Louis Blues, Whispering, and Swanee.

In food there was a considerable increase in packaged and canned goods on grocery shelves. Marshmallow fluff was introduced, and guacamole became a new food outside of Mexico; the Daiquiri was a popular way to drink illegal rum, and the science of how vitamins were beneficial was becoming a health food fad. 

Paul Poiret coat, fall 1920

There was a new English language word for a nondescript manufactured item (widget) as well as words coined into: fashion (T-shirt, Strapless, Swimsuit); religion (Born Again, Fundamentalism); automobiles (Tow-truck, Parking lot); flying (Barrel Roll, Nose Dive, Air-mail); politics (Activism, Fascism); and sex (Petting, V.D.). 

There were also new slang words and phrases: take a powder (scram); heat (trouble from police); beat (avoid prosecution); moolah (money); hoofer (dancer); cookie (cute woman); bubbly (champagne); jugs (breasts); fanny (buttocks); ritzy (high class); razz (deride); gaga (foolish), as well as whee and yippee for expressions of joy.

Miss Mandeville, 21 February, 1920

The term ‘Ponzi Scheme’ was coined after Italian-born American Charles Ponzi. He realized that international postage reply coupons from war-torn Europe could be cashed at a profit in the U.S. He hired agents to bring in investors to fund his Security Exchange Company, and when large commissions were paid out, they brought in more investors, who brought in more investors, and so on. The investors were funding each other’s commissions until Ponzi’s scheme collapsed on August 12, 1920.

Probably the most notable word of the year was flapper. In a February 5, article in the New York Times, Dr. R. Murray-Leslie identified the flapper as: “the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations”.

December 1920

Women’s fashions were gradually becoming shorter and more shapeless. Skirts were becoming more tubular although many retained wider hiplines from the previous year’s mode. Inspirations from the Far East (China and Japan), Russian peasants, and the 18th century were popular in details and motifs. Legs, from the bottom of the calf down, were exposed but clad in coloured opaque stockings, including various shades of beige. Shoes with hourglass shaped heels and pointed toes revived 18th century styles, and boots were beginning to lose favour for all occasions but walking. For dressier styles, lightweight taffetas and chiffon, often embellished in brocades, embroidery, or beadwork were popular. For day wear, woollen knits, wool serge suits and coats with fur collars and cuffs were preferred. Hats were slipping down the head to just above the eyebrow, and hair, if cut short, was usually permed into frizzy curls. If long, it was swept into low buns that would fit under a hat, although evening styles might feature high rolls or knots, ornamented with a comb.

For men, fashion continued on the same path it had been travelling since the end of the Great War. Youthful male styles in slim-cut wool suits, with high-buttoned jackets, and shirts with stiff or soft white collars, and short knitted or silk ties, all worn with homburgs or fedoras, or straw boaters in summer. For casual wear, men preferred flannels, sweaters, and jackets with caps.

Eaton’s catalogue, Fall/Winter 1920/21

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 A Hundred Years Ago – The World and Fashion in 1920

  1. Thank you for the great blog…it was a most enlightening read!

  2. Eli Barranger says:

    Interesting read. I wonder if our “20’s” will be as stylish as the 1920’s.

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