One hundred years ago most people made their own clothes or hired a tailor or dressmaker to make clothing for them. The mail-order catalogue was a major catalyst for the transition from custom-made to ready-made clothing.

Imagine a clothing catalogue that has two or three drawings of the types of garments carried. To order a dress or suit, you are instructed to describe what you want: the type of garment, colour, fabric, style, and approximate price. You must indicate whether you are young or "matronly," and have any "peculiarity of shape." You also have to send in twenty separate measurements of your body.

One hundred years ago, you would have been thrilled! Think of the alternative: You would have to make the garments yourself, or pay a tailor or dressmaker to do so at greater cost.

Today, very few of us have our clothes designed and sewn for us individually. We buy garments off the rack. But, until the mechanization of the clothing industry in the late 19th century, garments were made by hand to fit a particular person.

The mail-order catalogue was a major catalyst for the transition from custom-made to ready-made Read More
One hundred years ago most people made their own clothes or hired a tailor or dressmaker to make clothing for them. The mail-order catalogue was a major catalyst for the transition from custom-made to ready-made clothing.

Imagine a clothing catalogue that has two or three drawings of the types of garments carried. To order a dress or suit, you are instructed to describe what you want: the type of garment, colour, fabric, style, and approximate price. You must indicate whether you are young or "matronly," and have any "peculiarity of shape." You also have to send in twenty separate measurements of your body.

One hundred years ago, you would have been thrilled! Think of the alternative: You would have to make the garments yourself, or pay a tailor or dressmaker to do so at greater cost.

Today, very few of us have our clothes designed and sewn for us individually. We buy garments off the rack. But, until the mechanization of the clothing industry in the late 19th century, garments were made by hand to fit a particular person.

The mail-order catalogue was a major catalyst for the transition from custom-made to ready-made clothing. The first catalogues competed with tailors and dressmakers by offering made-to-order goods. Twenty years later, however, the mail-order companies closed their custom dressmaking and millinery workrooms and began offering customers ready-to-wear garments produced by machine in the growing numbers of clothing factories. Each step of the way, Eaton's had to reassure its patrons - who were accustomed to having their clothing custom-made by a dressmaker or tailor - that the mail-order catalogue was an acceptable alternative.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white catalogue page of Measurement Required by Eaton's Dressmaking and Ladies' Tailoring Department

Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1900-01, p. 3.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds

F-229
© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds


In response to an "immense increase" in orders from customers through the mail, the Eaton's issued its first catalogue in 1884. The catalogue was simply a listing of the kinds of merchandise sold in the store: carpets, blankets, fabric, underclothing such as corsets and crinolines, and, of course, clothing accessories no lady should be without: fans, gloves, handkerchiefs, parasols.

A large part of the catalogue was devoted to "dress goods," or fabrics, such as flannels, velvets, black crape (for mourning), silk and printed cottons; needles, thread, buttons and other sewing notions; and, dress trimmings such as lace and braid - everything a woman would need to make her own and her family's clothing. Eaton's even supplied dressmaking patterns.

Customers were instructed to describe their needs, for example, "I want something in gray for a travelling dress, not to exceed 75 cents a yard, and an idea in appropriate trimming." Eaton's would then send samples of fabrics and trim, from which the customer would make a selection.
In response to an "immense increase" in orders from customers through the mail, the Eaton's issued its first catalogue in 1884. The catalogue was simply a listing of the kinds of merchandise sold in the store: carpets, blankets, fabric, underclothing such as corsets and crinolines, and, of course, clothing accessories no lady should be without: fans, gloves, handkerchiefs, parasols.

A large part of the catalogue was devoted to "dress goods," or fabrics, such as flannels, velvets, black crape (for mourning), silk and printed cottons; needles, thread, buttons and other sewing notions; and, dress trimmings such as lace and braid - everything a woman would need to make her own and her family's clothing. Eaton's even supplied dressmaking patterns.

Customers were instructed to describe their needs, for example, "I want something in gray for a travelling dress, not to exceed 75 cents a yard, and an idea in appropriate trimming." Eaton's would then send samples of fabrics and trim, from which the customer would make a selection.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white catalogue page of Butterick Patterns

Butterick was a dressmaking pattern company and published a leading fashion magazine. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1900, p. 193.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds


Once a lady received the fabric and trim from Eaton’s, she would then have to make the garment. Most women could make simple dresses to wear at home. But, if she could afford it, a lady employed a professional dressmaker to sew her formal costume, which, in the late 19th century, was elaborate in construction and materials. Usually, it consisted of a two-piece suit with a tight-fitting bodice adorned with braid and buttons and a multi-layered skirt draped with fringed velvet or silk. Ladies relied upon the special skills of dressmakers - or "lady tailors" as they were sometimes called - in the fitting and draping of the costly fabrics.

Eaton’s competed for this market. In 1898, it established its "Dressmaking and Ladies’ Tailoring Order Department" in an attempt to woo away customers - especially women living in small villages or in the country - from small dressmakers and tailors: "Ladies living in the remotest part of Canada have every advantage of the latest fashions as if living in Toronto. All work of absolutely the best quality, under the supervision of the foremost Modiste in Canada."

Eaton’s made Read More
Once a lady received the fabric and trim from Eaton’s, she would then have to make the garment. Most women could make simple dresses to wear at home. But, if she could afford it, a lady employed a professional dressmaker to sew her formal costume, which, in the late 19th century, was elaborate in construction and materials. Usually, it consisted of a two-piece suit with a tight-fitting bodice adorned with braid and buttons and a multi-layered skirt draped with fringed velvet or silk. Ladies relied upon the special skills of dressmakers - or "lady tailors" as they were sometimes called - in the fitting and draping of the costly fabrics.

Eaton’s competed for this market. In 1898, it established its "Dressmaking and Ladies’ Tailoring Order Department" in an attempt to woo away customers - especially women living in small villages or in the country - from small dressmakers and tailors: "Ladies living in the remotest part of Canada have every advantage of the latest fashions as if living in Toronto. All work of absolutely the best quality, under the supervision of the foremost Modiste in Canada."

Eaton’s made hats to order, as well. Since no woman would venture outside her home without a hat, women had to have at least two hats - one for the fall/winter season and one for spring/summer. The enormous hats were supported by an intricate foundation of intersecting wires covered in cloth and draped with rich fabrics festooned with feathers or silk roses.

This essential of the lady’s attire provided scores of women with work as milliners, or ladies’ hat makers. Many milliners, like dressmakers, worked in small stores with one or two young apprentices. Eaton’s had its own millinery workrooms with "an immense staff." Eaton’s reassured possibly sceptical customers that it was appropriate to order hats by mail: "Millinery is easy to order by mail if you are careful in ordering. Clever clerks devote their whole time to anticipate the wants and wishes of mail order customers."

Customers were advised to give detailed descriptions of the style, colour, material, trimming, and price of hat desired, as well as details of their age, height, and weight. Hats were matched to body types, and presumably women were more honest in those days, since they were asked to state whether they were "stout or thin." Illustrations of sample hats in the catalogues were meant to give customers an idea of what Eaton’s had to offer.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white catalogue page with Eaton's Fit and Finish Guaranteed

"Fit and Finish Guaranteed. We are practical Mail Order Dressmakers." Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1898, p. 5.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, Series F-229, T. Eaton Co. fonds


While the early catalogues recognized that most clothing and millinery was custom-made - whether in the home or in the shop - they did offer specialty ready-made wearing apparel that was difficult to sew, such as gloves, hosiery, corsets, and collars, as well as garments that did not require a close fit, such as jackets, cloaks, and underwear.

When Eaton's established its catalogue in 1884, there were already several Canadian factories producing these garments. Eaton's also imported ready-made underclothing and accessories from the United States and Britain.

Eaton's understood that many people were not used to ordering clothing by mail sight unseen. The catalogue assured its out-of-town customers that not only would they get quality goods at the cheapest prices, but in the latest fashion: "A staff of young ladies with excellent judgment in matters of dress go, your letter in hand, until your entire order is filled, and give distant purchasers the benefit of a thorough knowledge of the most advanced fashions. They can shop for you better than you can yourself."

Eaton's had the competitive edge in the supply of these garments. The company Read More
While the early catalogues recognized that most clothing and millinery was custom-made - whether in the home or in the shop - they did offer specialty ready-made wearing apparel that was difficult to sew, such as gloves, hosiery, corsets, and collars, as well as garments that did not require a close fit, such as jackets, cloaks, and underwear.

When Eaton's established its catalogue in 1884, there were already several Canadian factories producing these garments. Eaton's also imported ready-made underclothing and accessories from the United States and Britain.

Eaton's understood that many people were not used to ordering clothing by mail sight unseen. The catalogue assured its out-of-town customers that not only would they get quality goods at the cheapest prices, but in the latest fashion: "A staff of young ladies with excellent judgment in matters of dress go, your letter in hand, until your entire order is filled, and give distant purchasers the benefit of a thorough knowledge of the most advanced fashions. They can shop for you better than you can yourself."

Eaton's had the competitive edge in the supply of these garments. The company offered a much larger variety of goods than did specialty stores in the cities or general stores in the country. Their wares were also cheaper. Eaton's went directly to the manufacturer for its merchandise, bypassing the middleperson. By the 1890s, Eaton's further cut costs by establishing its own factories: "We control the manufacture of garments in our own factories. Every step until the garments are finished and delivered to you is directed toward saving you money."

Unlike many stores that operated on the credit system, Eaton's joined other progressive retailers in offering a money-back return policy: "Our guarantee of goods satisfactory, or money refunded together with all transportation charges." Today, we are accustomed to returning our purchases for refund, but in the late 19th century, this service was both daring for the retailer and attractive to customers.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white catalogue page of Acme Brand Corsets

Acme brand corsets were "manufactured and sold exclusively by Eaton's." Note the new fashionable silhouette, with the forward tilt and wide bosom. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1907-08, p. 139.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, Series F-229, T. Eaton Co. fonds


In the late 19th century, ready-made underclothing, coats, and accessories were commonly available, but dresses and suits were still made at home or by a dressmaker. Slowly but surely, Eaton's won its customers over to purchasing dresses, and eventually all garments, through the catalogue.

Eaton's started in the 1890s with informal day-dresses, called "wrappers." These were one-piece robes that hung loosely from the shoulders and were pulled in at the waist with a belt or drawstring. They were meant to be worn at home. A slightly fancier version, the tea gown, was worn while entertaining friends. In comparison with the up to twenty measurements required for custom-made clothing, only the bust and length measurements were necessary for wrappers and tea gowns.

In an 1898 article titled "Ready-made Costumes," Eaton's assured its customers that these garments were the way of the future: "Women will come to it, sooner or later. There's no good reason why costumes and wrappers shouldn't be bought ready-made and worn satisfactorily."

The up-to-date retailer further explained that custom merchandising was backward now that all Read More
In the late 19th century, ready-made underclothing, coats, and accessories were commonly available, but dresses and suits were still made at home or by a dressmaker. Slowly but surely, Eaton's won its customers over to purchasing dresses, and eventually all garments, through the catalogue.

Eaton's started in the 1890s with informal day-dresses, called "wrappers." These were one-piece robes that hung loosely from the shoulders and were pulled in at the waist with a belt or drawstring. They were meant to be worn at home. A slightly fancier version, the tea gown, was worn while entertaining friends. In comparison with the up to twenty measurements required for custom-made clothing, only the bust and length measurements were necessary for wrappers and tea gowns.

In an 1898 article titled "Ready-made Costumes," Eaton's assured its customers that these garments were the way of the future: "Women will come to it, sooner or later. There's no good reason why costumes and wrappers shouldn't be bought ready-made and worn satisfactorily."

The up-to-date retailer further explained that custom merchandising was backward now that all manner of goods was produced in factories, to be bought ready-made: "It used to be that shoes and underwear, hats and jackets were made to your measure in much the same way as your furniture came from the cabinet maker. Those were slow days and business was indented with foggy ideas."

Another garment that was suitable for the first inroads into ready-to-wear was the "waist," or blouse. This informal garment became very popular among women venturing out of the home and into new occupations, such as typists or telephone operators. Women were also beginning to participate in sports such as tennis and bicycling and needed more comfortable, washable garments.

"Shirtwaists" made of sturdy cotton were the most informal and were designed to resemble men's shirts. They usually sold for under $1.00. More luxurious waists in silk or fine cotton (lawn) were also available for $1.50 to $3.00. A white waist paired with a plain black wool skirt became the trademark look of the working woman. At $4.50, this outfit was also affordable.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white catalogue page of Dresses for Women and Girls

Although these dresses were more casual than the formal lady's costume, they maintained the fashionable wide sleeves and slight bustle to the skirt. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1895-96, p. 26.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, Series F-229, T. Eaton Co. fonds


"Presenting: The Dress Shop"

It did not take long for Eaton's to venture into ready-made formal wear. By the turn of the 20th century, the catalogue was showing illustrations of ready-made suits, or "costumes" as they were called, for outings and sport. Unlike the costumes available through the made-to-order dressmaking department, these were purchased already made-up.

Customers sent in their measurements and Eaton's selected the closest size. Back then, there were many more variations in size to choose from than today and retailers all had their own standards for sizing. Eaton's recognized the importance of fit to the fashionable woman. Until 1915, women's clothing was tightly fitted to the corset shape and would have been an embarrassment if at all baggy. Exact measurements were essential.

Changes in fashion after the First World War enhanced the acceptance of ready-made women's clothing. The heavily corseted, voluptuous S-shape of the dress silhouette gave way to a soft, lean and streamlined shape, culminating in the "flapper" tunic of the 1920s. Dresses no longer had to be sk Read More
"Presenting: The Dress Shop"

It did not take long for Eaton's to venture into ready-made formal wear. By the turn of the 20th century, the catalogue was showing illustrations of ready-made suits, or "costumes" as they were called, for outings and sport. Unlike the costumes available through the made-to-order dressmaking department, these were purchased already made-up.

Customers sent in their measurements and Eaton's selected the closest size. Back then, there were many more variations in size to choose from than today and retailers all had their own standards for sizing. Eaton's recognized the importance of fit to the fashionable woman. Until 1915, women's clothing was tightly fitted to the corset shape and would have been an embarrassment if at all baggy. Exact measurements were essential.

Changes in fashion after the First World War enhanced the acceptance of ready-made women's clothing. The heavily corseted, voluptuous S-shape of the dress silhouette gave way to a soft, lean and streamlined shape, culminating in the "flapper" tunic of the 1920s. Dresses no longer had to be skin-tight (or rather, corset-tight). They hung loosely from the shoulders and sizing, therefore, was not as great an issue. By 1918, women no longer had to send in their measurements, but could choose a colour and size from a standard chart as we do today.

The ready-to-wear fashion pages expanded rapidly; the dress goods section shrank in size and was relegated to the back pages. More and more women bought their clothing rather than making their own. The department store catalogue supplied all their dress needs.

The same development occurred in millinery with the introduction of the cloche, or bell-shaped hat, in the 1920s. Instead of the complicated wire structure of the massive Edwardian hats, the cloche was made of a simple cone sparsely decorated. The cloche was perfect for factory production. The millinery department of the catalogue offered styles with their own names that women could order ready-made. In 1923, Eaton's eliminated its custom-made hat service and closed its millinery workrooms.

With simpler construction and little need for the fitting of women's clothing, the professional dressmaker was no longer considered necessary. Hats, which could be shaped by machine and simply trimmed, no longer required an expert milliner. Garment factories proliferated, where many former custom dressmakers found employment.

Ready-made clothing was cheaper than custom-made and was a boon to consumers. But, dressmakers and milliners were devastated by this new trend. In 1911, there were over 10 000 custom dressmakers and 5000 milliners in Ontario. Ten years later, the numbers had shrunk to half. By the mid-20th century, these occupations were virtually obsolete. The ready-to-wear clothing industry created many new jobs for women in the garment factories, but the highly skilled craft of handmade clothing was eliminated.

Conclusion

Today, when we choose a garment from Land's End or some other clothing catalogue, or when we browse through the racks of garments in the department store, we might remember that when Eaton's first started its mail order in 1884, most clothing was custom-made for the individual. Like all the giant retailers of the time, Eaton's gradually, but surely, won its customers over to ready-made clothing. Women, particularly in rural areas, jumped at the chance to save themselves the chore of sewing their own clothes, or paying a dressmaker. In 1924, Eaton's promised, "Send in your order, and behold, your dress will arrive!" Mail-order shopping had become modern.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white catalogue page of Delightful Stylish Dresses

In the final year of the Great War, the fashionable silhouette changed dramatically, with "slim lines that patriotically conserve as much material as possible." Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1918-19, p. 33.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Archives of Ontario, Series F-229, T. Eaton Co. fonds


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • observe and identify the characteristics of early 20th century lifestyle;
  • compare the evolution of the Canadian and Quebec society over several decades;
  • explain the similarities and differences between past and present society;
  • discuss the main events of the 20th century (economic crisis, World Wars, unionization, feminist movement) and the impact that they had on Canadian and Quebec societies.

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