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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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  Fancy fabrics, Eaton's Spring Summer 
1903, p. 2.  

Enlarge image.Fancy tweeds and evening fabrics. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1903, p. 2.


Custom-made to Ready-made: Women's Clothing in the Eaton's Catalogue, 1884 to 1930
by Christina Bates

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.


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


  Ladies` tailoring, Eaton's Fall  
Winter 1900-01, p. 3.  

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


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.

   Dressmaking department, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1899, p. 12   

To custom-make a skirt or waist (blouse), Eaton's required a description or illustration from the customer. The catalogue illustrations served as inspiration. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1899, p. 12.

Enlarge image.

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.

"We Supply Everything to Make Your Own"

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.

   Eaton`s departments, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1884, p. 34   

Eaton's started as a dry goods store, carrying fabrics, clothing accessories, and household furnishings - as reflected in the early catalogues. Soon it would add more and varied goods comparable to today's department store. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1884, p. 34 (reprint).

Enlarge image.

   Umbrellas and parasols, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1893-94, p. 76.   

Eaton's cautioned: "A lady will go pretty shabbily dressed before she will walk the streets on a summer day without a parasol." Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1893-94, p. 76.

Enlarge image.

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.

   Louis Velveteens, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1898, p. 6.   

Velveteen was a luxury fabric used for everything from fancy boy's suits to evening gowns. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1898, p. 6.

Enlarge image.

  Mourning dress goods, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1889-90, p. 15.  

Enlarge image.With a death in the family, women were required to wear black for three months to a year. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1889-1890, p. 15.

  Dress goods, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1897-98, p. 3.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1897-98, p. 3.

  Dress trimmings, Eaton's Spring Summer 
1897, p. 9.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1897, p. 9.


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.

   Butterick patterns, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1900, p. 193.   

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

Enlarge image.

"Or We Will Make It for You"

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."

  Dressmaking department, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1898, p. 5.  

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

  Made-to-order department, Eaton's 
Spring Summer 1899, p. 9.  

Enlarge image."Send us your order and your dressmaking worry is over." Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1899, p. 9.

  Fall millinery, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1896-97, p. 15.  

Enlarge image.Elaborate trimmings included fancy ribbons, egret feathers, and even whole birds. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1896-97, p. 15.


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.

  Spring millinery, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1897, p. 15.  

Enlarge image.For the summer, straw hats trimmed with plumes and silk flowers were popular. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1897, p. 15.

  Millinery department, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1893-94, p. 20.  

Enlarge image.Decoration on the dress of the fin-de-siècle lady was surpassed only by that on her hat. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1893-94, p. 20.


  Millinery at dry goods prices, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1888-89, p. 18.  

Enlarge image.By operating a large workroom of milliners, Eaton's was able to keep prices down. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1888-89, p. 18.


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."

  Spring millinery, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1898, p. 27  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1898, p. 27.


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.


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