It’s been a while since I’ve done an image heavy post, so here are some catalogue excerpts from vintage Australian department store mail outs.
These are all from the collection of the late Geoffrey Walker and were scanned for inclusion in my book Love Vintage – however, I soon realised that the scope of the book wasn’t going to be large enough to include menswear, so alas, these ended up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps I can write a book on 20th century menswear at some point? There’s not much information available compared to the enormous focus on ladies fashions.
Up until fairly modern times, store catalogues provided an accessible way for people who weren’t able to get to a shop to buy clothing. Some are quite comprehensive and include everything a home or family could need – for many isolated people in the country, a trip to the city might happen infrequently and so these provided many things that they couldn’t make themselves. What am I talking about? Catalogues are still produced by some shops for people to buy from, it’s a kind or precursor to online buying.
I love vintage catalogues because like vintage patterns, they provide a lot more than just a fashion design: they show how an item could be worn, how to accessorise it, wear your hair and make up…mail order companies were probably the first to develop standardised sizing too, as customers were not afforded the luxury of a fitting. Each catalogue would include a size chart with detailed measurements – that’s a post for another day, and it’s fascinating seeing how the sizing systems changed (for example, it will not surprise lovers of 1920s fashions to know that waist measurements were not considered, but I’m surprised to see that remained the case during the ’30s after the waist returned to it’s natural place).
Women would usually shop from the catalogues, so these images spanning thirty years show how what they wanted from their men changed, and what they found attractive changed too – earlier images frequently include pipes or cigarettes, for example, but to the modern eye these chaps can look rather grandfatherly. Not that I mind.
The other thing to keep in mind about catalogue product lines is that they’re never fashion forward: a style will have already proved it’s popularity before it’s mass produced in a range of sizes, colours, fabrics – these companies couldn’t take risks with trendy fashion, so what you’re seeing here is a good example of what people actually wore.
I can’t look at vintage catalogues without wishing that I could pick up the phone and order a few things, perhaps even a “manly gown” or two! At vintage prices of course….if you find that – like me – you enjoy the images and the information, I can recommend the series of Sears Fashion Catalogues books. I have several from the ’30s to the ’50s and they’re wonderful.