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Custom-made to Ready-made: Women's Clothing in the Eaton's Catalogue, 1884 to 1930 (Page 2)

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Introduction | "We Supply Everything to Make Your Own" | "Or We Will Make It for You" | "From Corsets to Collars: The Cheapest and the Best" | "House Wrappers and Tea Gowns Calculated to Fit" | "Presenting: The Dress Shop" | Conclusion | Further Reading

"From Corsets to Collars: The Cheapest and the Best"

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.

  Corset department, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1899-1900, p. 63.  

Enlarge image.The corset with cinched waist and full bosom created the fashionable silhouette of the 1890s. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1899-1900, p. 63.

  Ladies' capes, Eaton's Spring Summer 
1895, p. 13.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1895, p. 13.

  Ladies' underwear, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1895-96, p. 38.  

Enlarge image.Underwear included corset covers, chemises (slips), drawers (long underpants), and petticoats (half-slips). Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1895-96, p. 38.


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."

  Acme corsets, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1907-08, p. 139.  

Enlarge image.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.


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.

"House Wrappers and Tea Gowns Calculated to Fit"

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.

   Ladies' wrappers, Eaton's Fall Winter  
1895-96, p. 26.   

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.

Enlarge image.

   Ladies'  wrappers and tea gowns, 
Eaton's Spring Summer 1901, p. 12.   

Note the introduction of illustrations using a photographed head and drawn body. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1901, p. 12 (reproduction).

Enlarge image.

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."

  Ladies' shirt waists, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1902, p. 22.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1902, p. 22.


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.

   Spring suits, Eaton's Spring Summer 
1908, p. 26.   

"Our designers make frequent visits to obtain the latest ideas from London, Paris and New York." Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1908, p. 26.

Enlarge image.


"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.

  Ladies` dresses, Eaton`s Spring Summer 
1899, p. 10.  

Enlarge image.Even cycling required a tight-fitting suit and tailored hat. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1899, p. 10.

  Ladies` summer dresses, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1902, p. 9.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1902, p. 9.


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.

  Stylish dresses, Eaton`s Fall Winter 
1918-19, p. 33.  

Enlarge image.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.

  Corsets, Eaton's Spring Summer 1919, 
p. 141.  

Enlarge image.The new corsets achieved the elongated silhouette. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1919, p. 141.

  Pretty dresses, Eaton`s Spring Summer 
1925, p. 25.  

Enlarge image.The youthful look was fashionable. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1925, p. 25.

  Corsets, Eaton`s Spring Summer 1925, 
p. 107.  

Enlarge image.Minimizing matronly hips was required for the youthful figure. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1925, p. 107.

  The Dress Shop, Eaton`s Fall Winter 
1929-30, p. 20.  

Enlarge image.Note the sizes 14-20 (bust 32" to 38"). Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1929-30, p. 20.

  Taking measurements, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1918-19, p. 547.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1918-19, p. 547.

  Ensemble service, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1930-31, p. 2.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1930-31, p. 2.


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.

  Bob-O-Link hats, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1924-25, p. 104.  

Enlarge image.Young women got their hair fashionably "bobbed" or cut short. Eaton Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1924-25, p. 104.

  Fall millinery, Eaton`s Fall Winter 
1925-26, p. 63.  

Enlarge image.With hats produced cheaply in factories, a woman could afford several hats a year. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1925-26, p. 63.


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.


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.


Further Reading

Bates, Christina. "Creative Ability and Business Sense: The Millinery Trade in Ontario." In Framing Our Past: Canadian Women's History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sharon Anne Cook, Lorna R. McLean, and Kate O'Rourke. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queens, 2001.

Gamber, Wendy. The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860—1930. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois, 1997.

Kidwell, Claudia and Margaret C. Christman. Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1974.



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