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Le générique du Bulletin
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May/June 2003
Vol. 35, no. 3
ISSN 1492-4676

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"The Schoolboys’ Scamper"
Advertising Ready-Made Clothing to
'New Boys' and Their Mothers:
Department Stores and Mail-Order Catalogues

Joni Waiser
Research and Information Services

Did you know it was common practice in Canada in the late 19th century to indicate the gender of a boy by dressing him in pink, and that of a girl by dressing her in blue? At the SAVOIR FAIRE seminar on December 10, 2002, Dr. Jo-Anne M. McCutcheon discussed the role that clothing played in the late 19th and early 20th century in mediating relationships between Canadian parents and their children and in constructing children’s identities. She focussed on how the transition from homemade clothing to mass-produced, ready-made garments affected these relationships and identities. Her presentation was based on the research of her doctoral dissertation Clothing Children in English Canada, 1871-1930.

Beginning by thanking the organizers of SAVOIR FAIRE, she stated that most of the primary sources used in her thesis research  --  The Farmer’s Advocate, Dry Goods Review, the Timothy Eaton Catalogue, the Robert Simpson Company Catalogue and Hudson's Bay Company Catalogue  --  were found in the National Library’s collections.

The lecture had three objectives: to provide some background for research questions central to her thesis; to discuss contemporary issues related to clothing children and the construction of gender; and to explain her findings related to gender and children's clothing in Eaton’s, Simpson’s and Hudson’s Bay catalogues from the 1890s to the 1920s.

Schoolboys Scamper:
For four days in the autumn of 1913, the Timothy Eaton Company staged an all out extravaganza, showing off clothing for ‘new boys.’ The stage was set up to provide both a space for boys to play and to show off their brand new clothing to a lunch room packed with mostly mothers, but also attended by siblings and fathers.

Dr. McCutcheon’s presentation derived from a chapter of her thesis that examined clothing, children and the construction of gender. The starting point for her thesis was formal family photographs showing children with long hair wearing 20th-century style dresses  --  images which seemed inconsistent with the reality of every day life, especially in rural Canada.

In a wide range of 19th and early 20th century sources, boys can be found featured dressed in a way we would now associate with girls. In the late 19th century, it seems to have been common to indicate the gender of a boy by using the colour pink, while girls were identified using blue. At some point following the First World War, there appears to have been a switch, and blue became increasingly favoured for infant boys.

The question of colour points to the larger issue of how clothing related to the gender identity of children during the decades of rapid change in the late 19th century. Gender identity is clearly linked to the decisions of adults. Since children were dependent upon adults to produce and purchase materials and garments, their clothing was closely associated with adult expectations in the context of the social, economic and cultural imperatives and limitations of the time. The evidence revealed how important clothing was in mediating changing family roles and relationships.

Dr. McCutcheon developed a database of approximately 1200 descriptions of boys’, girls’ and children’s clothing found in catalogues and advertisements from the 1880s to the 1920s. She created tables to provide a breakdown by gender of children’s ready-made garments in the catalogues. Using these tools, she discovered that throughout the period, boys’ garments made up the largest percentage of children’s ready-made clothing, dominating catalogue advertisements and descriptions.

Clothing for Boys

In the late 19th century, descriptions of children’s dresses appeared in mail-order catalogues. In images from the early 20th century, very young boys sometimes appeared wearing these garments. In the late 19th- and early 20th-century stage of ‘breeching,’ when boys graduated from the feminine world of petticoats to the masculine world of trousers, trousers were almost always short and styled after bloomers, knee-trousers, knickerbockers or breeches. In the late 19th century, breeching was a rite of passage enacted between mothers and sons, whereas in the 1920s, catalogues portrayed boys as being the ones who decided when they would begin wearing long trousers.

In the 1890s, catalogues advertised bloomers for boys. By the 1920s, however, 11 percent of boys’ suits advertised long trousers, available for boys as young as three years.

Home Sewn to Ready Made

As part of the transition from home sewn to ready-made garments, the diversity of garments increased. For her research, Dr. McCutcheon assigned a type and style to each garment, with gender determining who wore which style of garment.

A survey and analysis of company catalogues from 1890 to1929 provided evidence of the changing perception of the needs and priorities of shoppers. Retailers tried to mediate between the desires of mothers and the desires of children. While the clothing appealed to the boys who wanted to play in comfort, the advertisements told women that it was much less trouble and more economical to buy ready-made children’s clothing than to sew garments, such as rompers. Dr. McCutcheon explained that it was as a consequence of this that parents started having their children photographed in rompers instead of the more formal Little Lord Fauntleroy style attire.

By the 1920s, catalogues advertised pants and shirts separately. In this way, families had more choices, and garments that had been sewn at home, such as shirts or simple trousers, were increasingly available ready-made.

Clothing for Girls

Throughout the period, there was less diversity in clothing designed specifically for girls than for boys. Dresses accounted for 100 percent of the ready-made garments for girls until 1909. In the decade following, two trends are noted: the first is the increased number of ready-made garments for girls; the second, the availability of garments that could easily be made at home, namely skirts and blouses. Only in the 1920s did the diversity in types of ready-made garments increase. The number of girls’ ready-made garments being advertised in the catalogues increased 11-fold from the 1890s to the 1920s.

In the 1920s, a style of coverall/overalls for girls appeared in mail-order catalogues, but they differed from boys’ overalls in a number of ways. Firstly, they were called coveralls; secondly, they were adorned with piping and materials used to symbolize femininity; and finally, they were unavailable for girls over the age of six or eight. While denim was predominant material used for boys, the overalls or coveralls for infants, children and girls were made from drill or sateen.

Bloomers, often associated with boys at the turn of the century, took on a different meaning for girls in the 1920s. Bloomers were shortened and elastics were added, and they were worn under dresses so that the length of a very young girl’s dress could also be shortened. According to catalogue descriptions, these bloomer or pantie dresses allowed young girls to enjoy play, while maintaining their feminine appearance. Another style of garment made for girls was the tomboy outfit, which along with blouses and skirts created an aura of demand and appealed to "active" girls. Catalogues advertised these garments for girls ages 6 to 14 only.

The Language of Advertising

To analyze the advertising language of mail-order catalogues from 1890 to 1929, Dr. McCutcheon devised a table, listing qualitative key words describing ready-made boys’, girls’ and children’s garments.

In the first catalogues published by the T. Eaton Company, simple sparse text described the goods available. Over time, the catalogues provided increasingly detailed descriptions about ready-made clothing, including details about the construction of garments and their function. Information about texture, weight and durability of material was very important because consumers relied on these descriptions in lieu of testing its qualities in person within a store. This information helped convince customers of the value of ready-made clothing. It also revealed the gendered nature of children’s ready-made garments, e.g., the use of decorative details such as beading, braid, embroidery, lace, piping, ribbon, ruffles or frill.

In the early 20th century, gender differences between boys’ and girls’ garments remained. Boys’ suit jackets were constructed with padded shoulders, and ‘fly’ fronts were added to trousers. The addition of the fly to boys’ trousers appears to have been based upon age, adding yet another layer to the ritual of moving from boyhood to manhood with respect to clothing.

In addition to providing customers with information about the actual construction of garments, catalogues also described the quality of sewing and workmanship. For example, in the 1920s, they advertised ready-made garments as being hand sewn, or having the appearance of hand knitting. These descriptions highlight how ready-made garments lightened mothers’ burdens with regard to home sewing. It was very important to the consumer  --  mothers  --  to have the homemade quality and appearance. There appears to have been a new market for garments sewn by hand, hand-knit or embroidered.

The provenance of material  --  Canadian, American, English, Italian, imported, etc.  --  was clearly seen to be important information to impart to customers. Companies would sometimes cite a city of provenance, e.g., New York or Paris, to bolster perceptions of qualities such as style and value of material.

The extensive retailing vocabulary used in the catalogues was directed at convincing customers to buy ready-made garments. Key words used to describe why a garment should be purchased reveal many constructions of gender and childhood. Meaning and value were found in the fact that boys' clothing appeared "mannish," "nobby," "natty," or "handsome" in mail-order catalogues. Girls’ garments were exclusively "dainty" and even "girlie." These catalogue descriptions emphasized the difference between girls’ and boys’ clothing, and the appeal of each.

In the 1920s, descriptions for ready-made garments brimmed not only with messages about gender and age but also economy. It was important to transmit information about the low expense of ready-made clothing and, consequently, their value was noted. Key words consistently used to reflect the value were "moderate," "low," "reasonable" and "economical" pricing. Claiming garments were "popular" created the sense that there was a demand for these styles. Ready-made garments for children were "splendid" and "pleasing," and a guarantee of total "satisfaction" suggested to customers that they would not regret their purchases.

In Conculsion

Dr. McCutcheon’s fascinating presentation served to further our understanding of the cultural features inherent in the transition from homemade clothing to ready-made garments. During the early 20th century, the process of getting children dressed was decidedly more complex than earlier. The mail-order catalogues clearly indicate that children’s wardrobes were becoming increasingly diverse, especially regarding gender options. The catalogues of the period played a significant role in constructing children's identities in late 19th- and early 20th-century Canada.

Jo-Anne M. McCutcheon recently obtained her doctorate in History from the University of Ottawa. She is currently building her research company, Humanities Research and Associates, which specializes in archival and policy research.

If you are interested in attending a SAVOIR FAIRE presentation or any of our wide range of public program activities at the Library and Archives of Canada, check out our Public Programs brochure online.