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Dress Reform and Mail Order
by Eileen O'Connor

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.

Critics of Fashionable Dress | Mail-order Companies and the Clothing Debate | Reform Woollen Undergarments | "Health Brand" Underclothing | Women's Sports Clothing | Conclusion


  Dressmaking and tailoring, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1900-01, p. 3.  

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


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.

  Tight shoes as shown in Jefferis and 
Nichols household guide, p. 291.  

Enlarge image.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.


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.

Mail-order Companies and the Clothing Debate

  Ball's corset, Dominion Sanitary 
Journal 1883, p. 62.  

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


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.

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

Enlarge image.Corsets. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1893, p. 15.


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.

   Steam-molded corset, Eaton`s Fall 
Winter 1887-88, p. 64.   

The Lily steam moulded corset made with Coraline and Ball's Corset. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1887-88, p. 64.

Enlarge image.

Reform Woollen Undergarments

Wearing woollen clothing or one-piece combination underclothes was a popular commercial solution for the problem of regulating body temperatures. One of the most prominent physicians to enter the dress reform market was the German doctor, Gustave Jaeger, who created his own medical woollen clothing system. He advocated wearing wool next to the skin, and outlined his theories and sanitary clothing system in his book Health Culture, first published in English in 1887.

   Dr. Jaeger's sanitary woollen system, 

Dr. Jaeger Sanitary Woollen System as seen in Dr. Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen System Co. Catalogue, New York, 1886.

Enlarge image.
   Dr. Jaeger's combination suits, 1886, 
p. 25.   

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

Enlarge image.

  Emancipation suit, 1876.  

Enlarge image.Canadian testimonials for the Emancipation Suit, from the Report of the Committee on Dress of the New England Women's Dress Reform Club, 1876.


Dr. Jaeger originally sold his clothing exclusively through his London store and his own catalogue. Before woollen underclothes or combination suits became readily available in Canada, there is evidence that some Canadian women placed orders directly from the catalogue of the New England Dress Reform Club.

Mrs. James MacPherson from St. John's, Quebec wrote on June 15, 1876: "[P]lease send as soon as possible another Emancipation Waist, 23 inches, for which find enclosed $2.00. I have had two of them already, and find they give entire satisfaction."

  Ladies' and children's underwear, 
Simpson's Spring Summer 1896, p. 38.  

Enlarge image.Ladies' Woollen Underwear. Simpson's Spring/Summer Canadian Shoppers Handbook, 1896, No. 56, p. 38.


By the late 1880s, however, Dr. Jaeger was selling his woollen reform clothing through selected retailers worldwide including Eaton's. In 1888, one year after Dr. Jaeger's book Health Culture was published and made available in Canada, his clothes were introduced to Eaton's and Simpson's catalogue readers. Throughout the last two decades of the 19th century, there was a marked increase in the number of natural wool items available in mail-order catalogues.

  Stuttgarter sanitary combination suit, 
Eaton's Fall Winter 1894.  

Enlarge image.Stuttgarter sanitary combination suits as seen in Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1894.


Eaton's and Simpson's carried English and German brand names of woollen undergarments that were inspired by Dr. Jaeger's sanitary wool system. Stuttgarter manufactured a popular line of women's woollen underclothes as well as men's and children's wear and knee warmers. Stuttgarter advertisements contained testimonials from "'leading medical experts " that extolled the benefits of the whole family clothed in Stuttgarter undergarments year round. The advertisement promised that their "pure, undyed sanitary wool would protect the wearer from colds and infections of the lungs."

The 1894 Eaton's catalogue also included natural wool body bands for men. Previously, advertisements had marketed body bands to pregnant women, children, and infants as protection from respiratory ailments.

"Health Brand" Underclothing

  Health brand underwear, Dry Goods 
Review 1894, p. 21.  

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


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

  Woman cycling, Dry Goods Review 1896, 

Enlarge image.The Dry Goods Review, 6 (1) (January 1896): cover.


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.

   Brantford Red Bird Bicycles catalogue 
1898, cover.   

Cover of the Brantford Red Bird Bicycle Catalogue, 1898, from Glen Norcliffe, The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 146.

Enlarge image.

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

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

Enlarge image.

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.

  Lady's bathing suit, Eaton's Spring 
Summer  1894.  

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


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.

   Young women on beach, ca 1894-95.   

Young women on the beach, ca. 1894-95.

Enlarge image.




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.



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