Mail-order Outfits of the 1890s:
Traditionally Victorian women’s gowns, which emphasised individuality of appearance and required a perfect fit, were made-to-measure by an experienced dressmaker. However the plainer, more practical ‘tailor-made’ ladies’ costumes that became fashionable for everyday wear during the 1890s could be mass-produced, like men’s suits. British textile and tailoring companies seized this new manufacturing opportunity, their pioneering mail order garment ranges representing the beginnings of the ready-to-wear female clothing industry.
Researching Victorian fashion, I found several illustrated newspaper advertisements dating from the mid-late 1890s relating to John Noble Ltd of Manchester (est. 1893) and Allen Foster & Co and Arthur Campbell & Co of London for ‘Half-Guinea Costumes’ available direct from their factories. A limited range of colours and materials were available, but the choice was reasonable and in inviting customers to specify the model or pattern required and supply their personal bust, waist, sleeve and leg measurements, these manufacturers effectively combined elements of bespoke tailoring with a convenient ready-to-wear service.
Fabrics on offer included cheviot and serviceable serge, while colours ranged widely from black, navy, brown, fawn and electric blue to cinnamon, bronze, ruby and petunia. Naturally each company claimed to be the largest costumier, providing the best service and greatest value for money; perhaps their models were, as stated, unique, but they all followed fashion closely, as seen in the 1897 advertisement below, which displays the very latest style of puffed ‘leg-o’-mutton’ sleeve.
Priced consistently at 10s 6d, the new ‘Half-Guinea’ costumes may not have been of the highest quality, but nonetheless they provided respectable and affordable outfits for not only middle-class ladies out shopping or paying morning visits, but legions of young working women including typists, telephonists and shop assistants. Such economical, fashionable costumes helped to disseminate new styles and played a significant role in the growing democratisation of late-Victorian dress.