See more of the Virtual Museum of Canada
image image
Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
Mail-order Catalogues image
Mail box
Mail box
image Main Menu Sources Contributors Travelling Exhibition Feedback image Table of Contents
image Section Menu For Collectors - For Teachers - For Students
image Fashion to Furnishings
Fashion to Furnishings
Capturing Customers
Company Histories
Order to Delivery
Catalogues (1880-1975)
Games and Activities
  Six dress styles in Sears-Roebuck 
Spring 1902, p. 1101.  

Enlarge image.Six dress styles proposed in the Sears-Roebuck (Chicago) Spring Catalogue, 1902, p. 1101.


Catalogues and Women's Fashion
by Shirley Lavertu

Department store catalogues were among the major agents of change that affected people's lives. They had considerable influence over women and the way they dressed. Bathing suits, girdles, and corsets were among the elements that were modified and completely changed women's lives and appearance.

Introduction | The Evolution of Fashion | The Slim Ideal | How to Become Thin | Sun Worshipping | Swimsuits | The Ageless Woman | From Corsets to Girdles | Girls' Clothing Modelled on Women'sConclusionFurther Reading


In the past few years, the media have often been criticized for their more or less positive influence on people's lifestyles and opinions. At one time, catalogues tried to dictate behavioural standards in several areas. Published by department stores, they were very popular at the end of the 19th century and even more so from the 1920s to the 1960s. Catalogue shopping, newspapers, and the feminine press in particular, greatly changed women's lives in both urban and rural areas. The changes focused on being young and thin, tanning, and the power of beauty.

Catalogues had a notable influence on women's consumption patterns and especially on the way women dressed. The department stores, including Eaton's, Simpson's, and Dupuis Frères, used the catalogues to propose new clothing styles. First and foremost, catalogues allowed women to be in touch with the world of fashion. Women rarely saw what others wore in the rest of the world, or even in their own country, because fashion publications were found infrequently in rural homes. The fashion pages in newspapers and a few magazines were the only sources of information.

Catalogues were among the publications received by rural women and they amplified the influence of fashion. However, despite the vast choice found in department store catalogues, rural women did not order much clothing. They preferred to buy fabric because there was a much greater variety in catalogues than at the general store and the price was lower. In the early part of the century, the choice of ready-to-wear clothing was limited, so stores had large inventories of fabric. Women made clothing as long as it was less expensive than buying it ready-made. By copying the styles in catalogues, they were able to follow the trends while keeping costs down. The popularity of ready-to-wear fashion increased as the role of catalogues became more important.

The Evolution of Fashion

What follows is an overview of a subject that is complex and vast. Women's fashion changed drastically from 1900 to 1960. In the early 20th century, clothing was supposed to hide the lower part of the body and alter its shape. Corsets, hoops, and innumerable petticoats compressed and modified women's figures. With time, clothing made the body look more natural and became more comfortable. Skirts were gradually shortened. In the early 1930s, dress hems revealed an ankle and gave a hint of a long slim leg. Sleeves became shorter and necklines lower. Dresses were fairly loose and had a slightly square shape, similar to a sweater. Then in the 1940s and 1950s, their shape changed. The top of the dress fit rather tightly, while the bottom was wide and full. Skirts remained calf-length, however. At that time, corsets made a comeback to make women's waists look slimmer.

The Slim Ideal

  Corsets, Eaton's Spring Summer 1893, 
p. 15.  

Enlarge image.Three styles of corsets sold in Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1893, p. 15.


At certain points in history, plump women were considered attractive. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the ideal woman was supposed to be thin. The change in the standard of beauty was radical and occurred in two phases. During the first phase, in the 19th century and at the turn of the century, the body was reshaped to make the waist look very thin. Corsets were promoted to achieve that look.

  Prima pills, Dupuis Frères 
été 1944, p. 77.  

Enlarge image.Prima pills, Dupuis Frères Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1944, p. 77 (centre left).


The catalogues of the period promised that the use of a corset would give women an excessively slim waist, making the figure S-shaped when viewed from the side. However, corsets caused health problems; they hindered breathing and weakened back muscles. This argument, put forth by some reformers, has been the subject of several discussions among fashion historians. Corsets deformed the body and prevented all natural movement. Women in both urban and rural areas discovered these new fashion trends through catalogues and tried to look like the models, who were excessively thin. The use of such models increased sales, but it also led to greater health problems. Women in rural areas were used to work that was more physically demanding and they usually had larger figures. As a result, they had to compress their rib cage to a greater degree to obtain the ideal slim shape. In doing so, they increased the health risks. In more conservative areas, however, some women chose not to wear corsets.

The popularity of corsets decreased from 1920 to 1930, but, in the second phase of change, fashion gurus tried to revive them in the 1950s by promoting crinolines.

How to Become Thin

Catalogues promoted fashion and, in a way, imposed new standards of beauty on society. As ideological vehicles, they featured women whose measurements and age reflected the aesthetic standards of the period: They were thin, young, and beautiful. The means of achieving that were illustrated in the catalogues. Girdles and corsets were placed front and centre and, more often than not, several pages were devoted to them.

Corsets were available in various styles and fabrics with different types of stays to satisfy every taste. And, they came in all sizes: slim, medium, and full-figured. Catalogues even offered full-figured women's clothing that made them look thinner. In those published for Eastern Canada, the models usually met the general criteria of the fashion world: youth, beauty, and slimness. However, catalogues for the West featured women with fuller figures who modelled clothing that had a slimming effect. The emphasis on slimness was more noticeable in Eaton's Toronto catalogue than in the Winnipeg edition, for example. Weight-loss products were offered to support women in their quest to be thin. On page 89 of its fall-and-winter 1934-35 catalogue, for example, Dupuis Frères featured an ad for Gomme Lacy's to help women "lose weight safely."

Slim women were considered refined and dignified. This new social standard was reflected in the new standard of beauty. Slimness also meant that women could afford to buy quality foods such as fruit, which was more expensive.

Sun Worshipping

  Beauty products, Eaton's Spring Summer 
1927, p. 343.  

Enlarge image.Beauty products for women, Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1927, p. 343.


In the early 20th century, the beauty ideal — fair skin —was no doubt inspired by the Victorian era. Starting in the 1920s, tanning became more and more popular in Quebec. According to Suzanne Marchand, tanned skin was a sign of health and wealth. The practice of tanning became more widespread as swimsuits became more popular. However, it was prevalent mainly in urban areas. The inhabitants of rural areas were already tanned, since they spent a good part of the year working outdoors. In the 1920s, for some people, tanning was a very obvious way of showing that they had the means and time to lounge on the beach. Given the trend, catalogues began to feature women in swimsuits and offer products for sunbathing. Warnings were issued concerning the damaging effects of overexposure to the sun, but they were quite informal and were viewed more as a means of selling more sunscreen.


  Swimsuits, Dupuis Frères 
Mi-été 1953, 
p. 4.  

Enlarge image.Swimsuits in "delightful colours," in the Dupuis Frères Mid-summer Catalogue, 1953, p. 4.


The French Canadian Catholic clergy, particularly in Quebec, opposed the distribution of catalogues, claiming that they revealed too much of the female anatomy. The main target of the battle was the swimsuit because the clergy felt it was unacceptable for women to bare their bodies in such fashion. Yet, the first swimsuits were quite modest; the skirt was rather long and the top did not have a low neckline. Gradually, however, they began to reveal more of the body.

  Swimsuits, Dupuis Frères 
Mi-été 1951, 
p. 5.  

Enlarge image.Swimsuits in Dupuis Frères Mid-summer Catalogue, 1951, p. 5.


To counter this fashion trend, which was considered indecent, the Catholic Women's League was formed in Quebec in 1920. In the 1930s, the League proposed a swimsuit model that was approved by the clergy. Dupuis Frères in Montréal and Eaton's Toronto sold the model. It is interesting to note that Dupuis featured swimsuits in its summer catalogue of 1923. This is all the more significant because the company's mail-order service was only a year old. The models in the catalogue wore large capes or beach pyjamas that hid most of the swimsuits.

The Ageless Woman

  Every woman can be beautiful, Dupuis 
Frères Printemps été 1944, p. 77.  

Enlarge image.Every woman can be beautiful at any age, so says the Dupuis Frères Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1944, p. 77.


As catalogues tried to promote the image of the ageless woman, they completely ignored the importance of those who represented wisdom in their milieu because of their experience. They continued to feature young models to sell all types of clothing, even clothing for older women. Beauty was regularly associated with youth. In the West, however, especially in the Eaton's catalogue published for that region, mature women modelled certain types of clothing, including hats.

Catalogues offered a multitude of products for women who wanted to remain young: creams, soaps, hair treatments, bras, corsets, clothing that made them look younger, etc.

In addition to being ideally slim, women had to look young. Among the products available were creams to keep their skin looking young and small red pills to help them maintain a youthful rosy complexion. Corsets and girdles allowed women of every background to maintain their youthful figures.

Beauty was also widely featured in the catalogues. The women who posed for catalogues represented dream images. Catalogues promoted clothing that had all the elements needed to make a woman beautiful. The Dupuis Frères spring-and-summer catalogue of 1961 advertised "Light and slimming girdles for the beauty and youth of your body." [transl.]

From Corsets to Girdles

In the 1920s, the waist was no longer emphasized by means of a corset. However, corsets did not disappear that easily from women's wardrobes because, in the 1940s and 1950s, waistlines were once again highlighted by the use of crinolines. At that time, corsets tended to be replaced by bras and girdles, the latter being used to compress the hips and lower abdomen while allowing a much greater freedom of movement. Panty girdles eventually replaced girdles, but it was not until the 1960s that their use became widespread.

   Corsets, Dupuis Frères 
Printemps été 
1944, p. 16.   

Corset sold in Dupuis Frères Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1944, p. 16.

Enlarge image.
   Undergarments for women and girls, 
Goodwin's Fall Winter 1911-12, p. 39.   

Undergarments and accessories for women and girls in Goodwin's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1911-12, p. 39.

Enlarge image.
   Corsets, Dupuis Frères Automne 
1929-30, p. 48.   

"Corsets that offer greater elegance," Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1929-30, p. 48.

Enlarge image.

In the early 20th century, the corset was a very important item of clothing for women, especially in urban areas. Corsets made their waists look slim. Slimness was in at the time, but not as much as today, according to some women. Girls began wearing corsets when they were young. At first, some complained that corsets were not very comfortable, but with time they got used to them.

  Elegant styles that require little 
care, Simpsons-Sears Fall Winter 1958, p. 117.  

Enlarge image."Elegant styles that require little care," Simpsons-Sears Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1958-59?, p. 117.

  Slips for girls, Simpsons-Sears 
(French) 1958, p. 179.  

Enlarge image."Slips for girls," Simpsons-Sears Fall/Winter Catalogue (French edition), 1958-59?, p. 179.


In rural areas, women wore corsets only on Sunday. It was the preferred day for dressing like their urban counterparts. Because of the nature of their work, rural women could not afford to be very restricted in their movements. Two-piece corsets gave them more freedom but still limited movement.

Girls' Clothing Modelled on Women's

Historians have always noticed similarities between women's clothing and girls' wear. In the early 20th century, there were differences; clothing designed for girls had deeper necklines and shorter sleeves. However, catalogue publishers targeted young girls in their corset ads. There were no such similarities between the clothing worn by men and young boys, but clothing worn by men did resemble that of adolescent boys to a certain extent.

  As radiant as a spring day, Dupuis 
Frères Printemps été 1953, p. 38.  

Enlarge image."As radiant as a spring day," Dupuis Frères Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1953, p. 38.

  Girls' undergarments and nightwear, 
Eaton Printemps été 1959, p. 136.  

Enlarge image.Undergarments and nightwear for girls, Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1959, p. 136.



Catalogues provoked great change and had considerable influence on women's fashion, creating a new market that in turn affected production. Since mail-order services allowed people to buy what was featured in catalogues, consumption patterns were also significantly transformed.

Women discovered new fashions and trends and catalogues helped them stay up to date. Catalogues thus influenced culture, tastes, and consumer choices. They made the world of fashion more accessible.


Further Reading

Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1987. Also published in Great Britain under the title A History of Costume in the West. London: Thames & Hudson, 1987.

Butazzi, Grazietta. La mode: Art, histoire et société. Paris: Le Livre de Paris/Hachette, 1983.

Collectif Clio. Quebec Women: A History, Micheline Dumont, ed. Toronto: Women's Press, 1987.

Desanti, Dominique. La femme au temps des années folles. Paris: Stock/Laurence Pernoud, 1984.

Deslandres, Yvonne and Florence Müller. Histoire de la mode au XXe siècle. Paris: Somogy, 1986.

Leach, William. "Transformation in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925." Journal of American History, 71(2) (September 1984): 319-342.

Marchand, Suzanne. Rouge à lèvres et pantalon: des pratiques esthétiques féminines controversées au Québec, 1920-1939. Cahiers du Québec, Ethnologie, no. 116. Montreal: Hurtubise HMH, 1997.



top of page
image image