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  • Jonathan Walford

A Century Ago - The World and Fashion in 1923


Left: After US president Harding died in office, Vice-president Calvin Coolidge, became president in August, 1923 Right: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the Duke of York, the future King George VI, at their wedding, 26 April, 1923


1923 marked the beginning of a postwar and post-pandemic world that included the new countries of Turkey and Palestine. In Italy, Mussolini’s fascists dissolved all political parties, but their own. In Germany, hyperinflation had led to such ridiculous levels that one American dollar equalled the value of hundreds of thousands of marks, making food and other basic necessities of life unaffordable for many Germans. The time seemed right for Hitler’s Nazis to attempt a coup in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The attempt was cut short and Hitler was sentenced to jail where he used his time to pen his seminal work Mein Kampf.



The Canadian government enacted the Chinese exclusion act that essentially stopped all new Chinese immigrants ostensibly because they were willing to work for lower wages than other Canadians. Racism was more violent in the United States. The black town of Rosewood, Florida was destroyed and some of its residents lynched by the Ku Klux Klan after false accusations were made by a white woman of being assaulted by a black man. The KKK had gained enough support in some areas of the U.S. that the governor of Oklahoma was impeached after he attempted to outlaw the organization in his state. In other parts of the U.S., another organization was on the rise – the first arrest of a ‘mafia’ gangster was made in 1923.



International labour unrest continued to plague mines, docks, and industries, leading to some concessions: the U.S. steel industry set a standard eight hour work day, and the recently created U.S.S.R. adopted a five day work week.


Natural disasters included a heat wave in Australia, the eruption of Mount Etna in Italy, which left 60,000 homeless, and the worst disaster of the year - the Great Kanto earthquake on September 1 that devastated Tokyo and Kyoto, leaving over 140,000 dead.



In good news, Edward Hubble identified the Cepheid star - something that could be included in the world’s first planetarium projection created in Germany. Other firsts include the invention of the rototiller, the founding of Time magazine, the creation of Interpol (International Criminal Police Commission), and the development of the Schnauzer dog breed. Construction on the Sydney Harbour bridge began, and the Yankee stadium was completed in New York.



Prohibition was already beginning to be repealed in Canada, starting with the province of Manitoba. And although it was becoming easier to get a drink, cannabis was made illegal in Canada in 1923. In the U.S. you might make up the new ‘Pina Colada’ cocktail and put it in your ‘hip-flask’ or ‘thermos’ - recently invented by James Dewar.



At the newly coined ‘snack bar’ you could order a ‘Popsicle’, ‘Milky-way’, ‘Butterfinger’, ‘Hershey’s Peanut Butter Cup’, or a ‘Yoo Hoo’ chocolate drink. Other new foods of 1923 include the hybrid of a raspberry and blackberry called a ‘boysenberry’; emulsified peanut butter was first sold under the label ‘Peter Pan’; Welch’s started selling grape jelly; and Libby’s canned tomato juice for the first time. You could also buy a pack of 'Marlborough' brand cigarettes or a ‘6-pack’ of coca cola for the first time.



In the hills of Los Angeles, the Hollywoodland sign was erected over an area that became known for the film industry that in 1923 included the new companies of Warner Brothers and Walt Disney. New words coined by the film industry include: a ‘run-through’ (rehearsal), with a ‘straight man’ (comic sidekick), where the director would shout ‘ACTION’ for a scene that might have to be ‘spliced’ into a reel. The year’s top ‘smash’ films included The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Lon Chaney, The Ten Commandments, and Harold Lloyd’s comedy, Safety Last.



You weren’t going to hear any ‘four-letter-words’ on the radio, but you might catch the ‘news’ or a ‘spot’ between dance music provided by the Paul Whiteman or Isham Jones dance orchestras. Popular songs of the year included novelties like Yes, We have no Bananas, and Who’s Sorry Now. Black musicians made a breakthrough in music recordings with hits including Dippermouth Blues, by Louis Armstrong, and I Wish I could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, by Bessi Smith.


Top reads of 1923 include: Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id; Willa Cather’s One of Ours; Kahill Bibran’s The Prophet; Felix Salten’s Bambi; Philip Gibbs’ Middle of the Road; Dorothy L Sayers’ first Lord Peter Wimsey novel Whose Body?; P. G. Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves; and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Links.


If you were a car racing fan, you might want to check out the first Le Mans 24 hour race. You might buy an ‘MG’ (Morris Garages) and ‘step on it’, but if you picked up a ‘hitchhiker’ they could turn out to be a ‘back-seat driver’ when they ask you to use your ‘blinker’. It was a few years before the first autogyro (helicopter), designed by Juan de la Cierva, was put into production, but you could take a plane and hope a ‘gremlin’ doesn’t cause a mechanical failure requiring the pilot to call ‘Mayday’ (from the French m’aidez – help me). If you landed safely, you probably ‘deplaned’ on the ‘runway’.



In 1923 you might give someone a ‘dirty look’ if you were a ‘High hat’ (arrogant) member of the ‘establishment’ (social matrix of ruling people) or a ‘babbitt’ (materialistic, conventional, businessman). You might be a ‘snowbird’ (someone who travels south in the winter for work), where you run into a ‘loopy’ (crazy) ‘junkie’ (drug addict) who gives you the ‘Heebie-jeebies’ (creepy feeling). You might be a ‘Yenta’ (gossipy busybody) or a ‘Moll’ (gangster’s girlfriend) who thought everything was ‘The Bee’s Knees’ (excellent). And if you were ‘boy-crazy’, you might ‘French kiss’ while being ‘starkers’ (naked).


Two new fashion colours found favour in 1923 – teal (a dark greenish/blue colour resembling the teal duck), and raspberry (a colour between pink and scarlet).


For women, the hemline dropped almost to the ankle, and the shape of dresses and coats became tubular with dropped waists, hiding the feminine silhouette. The style accentuated a youthful, slim, almost genderless figure, reacting to the over-stated feminine shape of the Edwardian era that was created with the aid of corsetry. The new fashions were liberated, made for the new woman who smoked, drank, danced, voted, and worked. On May 28, 1923, the U.S. Attorney issued a statement saying it was legal for women to wear trousers in public, although it would take fifty years before trousers were commonly worn by women in public.



For men, the suit was loosening up from its tight, youthful cut to wider trouser legs and lapels. Some women were colouring their hair ‘platinum’ (a grayish white colour of blonde), and more women were cutting their hair short, just as hats slipped down over the head, creating the look of a little girl trying on her mother’s hat. Sex appeal was accentuated in form fitting one piece knitted bathing suits. They were becoming popular at resort destinations like Florida, where travellers could enjoy some summer weather in the middle of winter.


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