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    Made-to-order men’s suits in Sears 1929 catalog

    There was a time, as everyone knows, when you could buy just about anything from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. I was surprised to see, though, that Sears also sold “made -to-order” suits for men.

    At auction recently, I came across a Sears Made-To-Order Clothes catalog for men and young men, Fall and Winter, 1929-30. It contained black and white photos – with splashes of orange – of dapper men in Sears suits and overcoats whose designs the buyers chose and Sears made. The orders were shipped for free.

    Most interesting about the catalog were the small rectangles of fabric swatches that men – or their women – could see and feel in making their decision: Should it be the Wonder Cloth “As fine as silk, Wears like iron,” “Pure Australian Worsted with Silk Stripes.” Or the “Pure Virgin Wool Worsted.”

    A Sears made-to-order suit in Wonder Cloth, with fabric swaths.

    A Sears made-to-order suit in Wonder Cloth, with fabric swatches.

    The catalog also included a page of instructions on how men should measure their back, arm, chest, waist, outside and inside seams, and “seat.” I wonder how many had to be returned because the measurements were off.

    Based on the illustrations in the catalog, these suits were designed for men who were considered leaders in their professions. In fact, one page showed suits specific to them: the Varsity for university men, the Councilor and the Broker.

    Sears had been selling everything under the sun in its catalogs for more than 100 years when the “Big Book” – that’s what the general catalog was called – was discontinued in 1993. It all began when Richard Sears in 1888 sent out mailers advertising watches and jewelry. That mailer evolved into the Sears mail-order catalog, first offered in 1893 with such items as sewing machines, saddles, guns, buggies, bicycles and clothing for sale at prices lower than retail stores.

    The front cover of the Sears made-to-order catalog.

    The front cover of the Sears made-to-order catalog.

    Sears was not the first mail-order catalog. Macy’s and Montgomery Ward had their own catalogs, but Richard Sears apparently had a knack for promoting his products. He wrote most of the text in the magazine at this time, and was always adding products to his inventory or creating some new advertising gimmick.

    The mail order business had its detractors, as shown in a 1909 article in the Farm Implements trade publication that noted Sears’ retirement, and $10 million to $25 million worth.

    In 1898, Sears started printing specialty magazines to sell specific products, such as mixed paints and photographic items. He expanded his catalog’s reach to different groups of people – hiring translators, offering wigs for African American women.

    Two pages of fabric swaths.

    Two pages of fabric swatches.

    The 1905 catalog included color and textured wallpaper samples, and actual swatches of fabric from men’s suits so customers could feel “the weight and softness of the material.” The company also added paint samples in subsequent catalogs.

    I could find no made-to-order Sears specialty catalog for women’s suits, but the National Cloak and Suit Co. did offer sales of these types of garments.

    Here are some pages from the Sears men’s made-to-order specialty catalog.

    Wool and silk worsted fabric samples.

    Wool and silk worsted fabric samples.

     

    A photo demonstration of how the suit is made.

    A photo demonstration of the workmanship that goes into making the suit.

     

    Made-to-order overcoats.

    Made-to-order overcoats.

     

    A page of clothing accessories for men, along with instructions for measuring the body.

    A page of pants and vests styles, along with instructions for measuring the body.

     

    Sears made-to-order suits for men who were leaders.

    Sears made-to-order suits for men who were leaders.

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