From Riches to Ruin: 1900โ€“18

The first two decades of the twentieth century saw dramatic changes in the political, social, and economic life in the West. The prosperity that characterized life at the turn of the twentieth century was largely the result of industrialization, a long historic process that had introduced factory production to many major industries, including mining, manufacturing, and the production of clothing. Industrialization had brought great wealth to the major powers of the world, making England, Germany, France, and the United States the most prosperous countries on earth. Yet it also allowed these countries to create powerful armies. When these armies clashed in World War I (1914โ€“18), they participated in one of the bloodiest wars in history.

Industrialization, prosperity, and social change

People living in the major Western countries at the turn of the twentieth century were more prosperous than at any time in history. The rise of factory production had stimulated the economies of the West, creating giant corporations headed by extremely wealthy businessmen. The wealth created by modern economies went primarily to rich factory owners and bankers, but it also raised the living standards of people throughout the West. The middle classes grew larger in the 1900s and became an increasingly important political class. They exerted a great influence on politics, especially in the United States. Industrialization also made the lives of the working classes less desperate, if still difficult. Workers in large cities organized themselves into labor unions, groups of people who used their numbers to gain influence in the economy and in politics. No longer did the wealthy few control politics in the West; in the twentieth century all classes had some influence.

The increasing influence of the middle and working classes led to major social changes in the first years of the new century. First, middle-class women led the successful campaign for increased rights, including suffrage (the right to vote) and the right to work. Though women were not yet viewed as social equals to men, they were on their way. Secondly, the increase in literate people, or people able to read, with access to excess income that they were looking to spend allowed for the creation of popular culture, including magazines, movies, and later radio and even television. These new forms of entertainment spread information very quickly, including information about politics and fashion. These forms of entertainment brought people closer, since people in different states and even different countries could read the same magazines, watch the same movies, and wear the same clothes. Another factor bringing people closer together was the automobile, which grew from a novelty to a necessity in the first twenty years of the century.

World War I

Despite the positive impact of rising prosperity, social liberation, and the growth of popular culture, the differing political goals of the European powers soon led to a disastrous war. World War I pitted Germany, Austria, and their allies against France, England, Russia, the United States, and their allies. The great capability of modern industry was turned toward war, and factories produced the machine guns, tanks, and airplanes that made killing more efficient than ever before. Millions died in the war, and the economies of the European powers were severely damaged, leaving the United States as the most powerful country in the world. The war also brought great social change, for it brought many women into the workplace to replace the male workers who went overseas to fight.

Industrialization, the women's movement, the rise of popular culture, and the war each had an impact on the world of fashion. While the clothing customs of the first years of the century were dominated by the interests of Europe's wealthiest people, costume customs soon changed to reflect the diverse tastes of consumers from all social classes. By the end of World War I clothing customs in the West had entered the modern era.


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Civilian Dress in Wartime
Clothing, 1900โ€“18
Headwear, 1900โ€“18
Body Decorations, 1900โ€“18
Footwear, 1900โ€“18

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