In 1925 Sears, Roebuck and Co. announced, "We have become the world's largest store" and stated that nine million families bought from them. Based on this claim, and since all mail-order houses included wearing apparel, the fashion sections of the mail-order catalogs must have been America's most popular and best-read fashion magazines. Buying through the mails had become a firmly established American institution and the mail-order catalog had become the "Farmer's Bible" and the "Nation's Wishbook."

In the 1920s the entire family could be dressed via the United States Postal Service system. The mail-order catalogs not only showed women's clothes but also consistently included fashions for children, teenagers and men. Although small children's fashions resembled in some measure those of the adults, there were now clothes specially designed for little boys and girls. Changes in men's fashions during this period were relatively slow and subtle. Nevertheless they were there and become quite obvious if one compares, for example, the fashions of 1919 with those of 1927.

 

Although today there is a great deal of buying through the mails on even the highest levels, it has become a popular notion that mail-order clothes of the past were purely utilitarian, having little flair of design or quality. While it is true that many pages were devoted to cheap, practical wearing apparel, and none to ballgowns or white ties and tails, the most impressive segment of these catalogs was the one devoted to fashions--clothes to be worn as Sunday best, for going out, sports, leisure times and for everyday wear. Even housedresses and work-shirts had a modicum of style and were in tune with the times.

Placed at the beginning of the catalog, carefully delineated drawings and photographs, many in color, gave the book excitement, life and eye appeal. Mail-order merchandisers did not attempt to project fashion trends. What they promised was rapid delivery. As Sears, Roebuck boasted, "We are proud of our merchandise and proud of the service we give our customers. REAL 24-hour service. 99 out of every 100 orders we receive are shipped in less than 24 hours." These firms had to have a ready supply of whatever they offered for a specified time at the listed prices. Their investment was enormous and they could not afford to gamble with the untried or untested, especially in areas as unpredictable as next season's fashions. Yet, if the styles they featured did not have the élan or the ultra-chic avant-garde appearance of the latest fashions shown in New York or Paris, they did inform their readers of what was currently espoused and accepted. Fads and unsuccessful projections are minimal in these catalogs; anyone interested in knowing how the majority of Americans dressed during the period can feel secure in the knowledge that what was illustrated was pretty much what was generally worn.

Blum, Stella. Everyday Fashions of the Twenties As Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs.