Introduction

Mail order helped to promote fashionable dress during the late 19th and 20th centuries. When dress reform activists objected to the restrictions posed by this type of clothing, clothing manufacturers and mail-order companies adapted by making and selling new, healthy woollen underclothing. The cycling boom also brought more comfortable clothing for women.

During the Victorian period, acceptable formal dress for middle-class women included long dresses, corsets, petticoats, and heeled shoes. Dressing well and following fashion meant a great deal to many women. To find reasonably priced stylish clothing, Canadian women increasingly turned to mail-order catalogues that did not disappoint. Catalogue shoppers could buy their clothing ready-made or send in their measurements for made-to-order tailored suits.

A strong clothing department for women was a necessity for both department stores and mail-order catalogues, since the ability to provide fashionable women's dress reflected well on the quality and novelty of the other departments. The women's clothing department had its own skilled buyer who was a Read More
Introduction

Mail order helped to promote fashionable dress during the late 19th and 20th centuries. When dress reform activists objected to the restrictions posed by this type of clothing, clothing manufacturers and mail-order companies adapted by making and selling new, healthy woollen underclothing. The cycling boom also brought more comfortable clothing for women.

During the Victorian period, acceptable formal dress for middle-class women included long dresses, corsets, petticoats, and heeled shoes. Dressing well and following fashion meant a great deal to many women. To find reasonably priced stylish clothing, Canadian women increasingly turned to mail-order catalogues that did not disappoint. Catalogue shoppers could buy their clothing ready-made or send in their measurements for made-to-order tailored suits.

A strong clothing department for women was a necessity for both department stores and mail-order catalogues, since the ability to provide fashionable women's dress reflected well on the quality and novelty of the other departments. The women's clothing department had its own skilled buyer who was an expert in finding high quality merchandise at reasonable prices from suppliers in Canada and abroad. Thus, Canadian women from both urban and rural settings became acquainted with new fashion trends from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Critics of Fashionable Dress

The proliferation of women's fashionable dress had its critics, however, and several attempts were made to reform women's dress. Dress reform associations were established in the United States, Britain, Germany, and other European countries, where concerned members discussed and promoted alternate styles of dress. There was no shortage of problems identified with women's dress. First, Victorian middle-class women's dresses were too tight and restricted them to passive, indoor pursuits. Second, an uneven distribution of clothing and exposure to drafts caused body temperatures to fluctuate. Third, too many young women wore "showy and vulgar" dress characterized by excessive fur, feathers, and ribbon; and finally, tightly laced corsets and narrow shoes caused a multitude of problems for women and their offspring.

Medical conditions attributed to wearing fashionable dress included abnormal menstruation, miscarriage, breast tumours, weakened abdominal muscles, abnormally shaped livers, feet, and spines, cracked ribs, shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat, tuberculosis and anaemia.

There were no formal dress reform associations in Victorian Canada, so it was the physicians and, in particular, the newly trained gynaecologists, who were most prominent in the discussion of dress reform. Their medical knowledge of women's bodies and their expertise in treating them produced a maternal image of women that was endorsed in social purity literature and popular advice books. Physicians, moral reformers, and social purity advocates, like members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), urged women to reflect on the perceived impact of tight clothing on their health. They also urged young women to dress modestly and "appropriately" according to prescribed class dress codes

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white catalogue page of dressmaking

Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, no. 45, 1900-01, p. 3.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.


Drawing of the effects of wearing tight-fitting shoes

The effects of wearing tight-fitting shoes as depicted by Dr. B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols in The Household Guide or Domestic Cyclopedia (Toronto: J. L. Nichols Company Limited, 1894), p. 291. This almanac was sold through the Eaton's catalogue.

by Dr. B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation


The role of department store catalogues and mail-order service in the promotion of dress reform was complex. Since girls and women constituted the entire market for corsets and fancy dress, dress reformers' opposition to fashionable dress was considered an obstacle to sales.

Mail-order companies acknowledged the clothing debate, as the following catalogue advertisement indicates: "The doctors claim the corset as their best friend; but in spite of doctors and dress reformers, a new corset makes its appearance every little while. And the women buy them of course they do."

Corset manufacturers recognized the changing attitudes towards health and fitness, and developed alternative products for this segment of the market. Some companies included physicians' testimonies that properly fitted corsets could be "health preserving," as was the case for Ball's corsets advertised in the Eaton's catalogue and medical journals. "Healthy corsets" were made using new techniques such as steam moulding to replace rigid whalebone stays, and by using coraline, an elasticized cotton fabric that increased flexibility.
The role of department store catalogues and mail-order service in the promotion of dress reform was complex. Since girls and women constituted the entire market for corsets and fancy dress, dress reformers' opposition to fashionable dress was considered an obstacle to sales.

Mail-order companies acknowledged the clothing debate, as the following catalogue advertisement indicates: "The doctors claim the corset as their best friend; but in spite of doctors and dress reformers, a new corset makes its appearance every little while. And the women buy them of course they do."

Corset manufacturers recognized the changing attitudes towards health and fitness, and developed alternative products for this segment of the market. Some companies included physicians' testimonies that properly fitted corsets could be "health preserving," as was the case for Ball's corsets advertised in the Eaton's catalogue and medical journals. "Healthy corsets" were made using new techniques such as steam moulding to replace rigid whalebone stays, and by using coraline, an elasticized cotton fabric that increased flexibility.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white advertisement for Ball's Health Preserving Corset

Ball's Health Preserving Corset as advertised in Dominion Sanitary Journal, 6 (2) (November 1883): 62.

Canadian Museum of Civilization

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation


Black and white Dr. Jaeger Catalogue page

Dr. Jaeger's ladies' combination suits, as advertised in Dr. Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen System Co. Catalogue, New York, 1886, p. 25.

Canadian Museum of Civilization

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation


"Health Brand" Underclothing

A new Canadian line of reform woollen underclothing was created in the late 1890s from the Montreal Silk Mills, and appropriately called "Health Brand." The link to health and medicine was created not only through its name, but also through the advertising, which included endorsements by medical authorities. Although Health Brand was based on Dr. Jaeger's clothing system, it clearly outsold Dr. Jaeger in Canada. It was available from the Eaton's catalogue, and was widely advertised in newspapers, magazines, and trade journals like the Dry Goods Review. In an 1896 issue, a full-page advertisement for Health Brand stated that it was "endorsed" by Mrs. Jean Morris Ellis of Montréal in a dress reform lecture. Mrs. Ellis and physicians alike emphasized the importance of wearing wool garments year round and recommended Health Brand for its superior quality.

Women's Sports Clothing

Catalogues and trade journals also served as a direct means to communicate medical knowledge and new ideas about women's role in society, Read More
"Health Brand" Underclothing

A new Canadian line of reform woollen underclothing was created in the late 1890s from the Montreal Silk Mills, and appropriately called "Health Brand." The link to health and medicine was created not only through its name, but also through the advertising, which included endorsements by medical authorities. Although Health Brand was based on Dr. Jaeger's clothing system, it clearly outsold Dr. Jaeger in Canada. It was available from the Eaton's catalogue, and was widely advertised in newspapers, magazines, and trade journals like the Dry Goods Review. In an 1896 issue, a full-page advertisement for Health Brand stated that it was "endorsed" by Mrs. Jean Morris Ellis of Montréal in a dress reform lecture. Mrs. Ellis and physicians alike emphasized the importance of wearing wool garments year round and recommended Health Brand for its superior quality.

Women's Sports Clothing

Catalogues and trade journals also served as a direct means to communicate medical knowledge and new ideas about women's role in society, particularly when it promoted the merchandise they were trying to sell. For example, an article by Dr. W. H. Fenton on women and cycling was summarized in an 1896 issue of the Dry Goods Review. Dr. Fenton strongly endorsed cycling and exercise for women, and encouraged women to wear high collars, tight-fitting sleeves, and warm absorbent undergarments to improve circulation and to remove "the aches and pains that tend to make her prematurely old."

During the cycling boom in the 1890s, women were considered an important market for bicycle manufacturers. Numerous bicycle companies printed their own catalogues during this period, and often included images of women riding bicycles.

Department-store catalogues followed the cycling trend and carried the appropriate riding attire and accessories including bicycle corsets.

While articles in the Dry Goods Review encouraged retailers to carry bright, silk knickerbockers trimmed with lace and ribbon, mail-order catalogues carried the traditional serge or wool cycling skirts in dark colours.

Women who enjoyed sports were not limited to cycling, and by the early 20th century, golfing, riding, tennis, and swimming were also promoted as suitable sports. Naturally, mail-order catalogues supplied the necessary clothing and accessories. The Eaton's catalogue carried a line of navy-blue serge bathing suits that were very popular among women at the time.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

With the rise of a strong consumer culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, consumers had unprecedented choices in determining how they wanted to dress. Since women continued to wear corsets despite medical and prescriptive advice to the contrary, mail-order companies supplied the broad range of consumer demands by offering something for everyone: traditional women's dress and accessories, reform corsets, and dress-reform woollen underclothing, as well as clothing for women who increasingly participated in sports and leisure activities.

Indeed, "healthy" corsets and reform woollen underclothes were the first evidence of Canada's foray into dress reform. Regulating healthy bodies continued to be linked to the regulation of body temperatures through woollen dress. The popularity of Dr. Jaeger's medical clothing system inspired the popular Montréal-based Health Brand line, underscoring how health was the main issue in retailing reform clothing in late 19th century Canada. Mail-order catalogues like Eaton's and Simpson's played a large role in introducing these reform garments to women throughout Canada.
With the rise of a strong consumer culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, consumers had unprecedented choices in determining how they wanted to dress. Since women continued to wear corsets despite medical and prescriptive advice to the contrary, mail-order companies supplied the broad range of consumer demands by offering something for everyone: traditional women's dress and accessories, reform corsets, and dress-reform woollen underclothing, as well as clothing for women who increasingly participated in sports and leisure activities.

Indeed, "healthy" corsets and reform woollen underclothes were the first evidence of Canada's foray into dress reform. Regulating healthy bodies continued to be linked to the regulation of body temperatures through woollen dress. The popularity of Dr. Jaeger's medical clothing system inspired the popular Montréal-based Health Brand line, underscoring how health was the main issue in retailing reform clothing in late 19th century Canada. Mail-order catalogues like Eaton's and Simpson's played a large role in introducing these reform garments to women throughout Canada.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white advertisment for Health Brand Underwear

Advertisment for Health Brand underwear in The Dry Goods Review, 4 (6) (1894): 21.

Canadian Museum of Civilization

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation


Black and white catalogue page of corsets

Bicycle corsets. Simpson's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1896, p. 79.

Hudson's Bay Company

© Hudson's Bay Company, used with permission


Black and white catalogue page of a Lady's Bathing Suit

Lady's bathing suit. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1894, p. 30.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

© Sears Canada Inc.


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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