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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Responding to the Canadian Female Sport Consumer: A Historical Perspective

Mail order catalogues have long provided sport consumers with a range of clothing/sporting goods options. In the nineteenth century, mail order catalogues and trade journals also served as a direct means to communicate medical knowledge and new ideas about women and sports, particularly when it promoted the merchandise they were trying to sell. For example, an article by prominent physician Dr. W. H. Fenton on women and cycling was summarized in an 1896 issue of the Dry Goods Review. In it, Dr. Fenton strongly endorsed cycling and exercise for women, and encouraged women to wear high collars, tight-fitting sleeves, and warm absorbent undergarments to improve circulation and to remove “the aches and pains that tend to make her prematurely old.”

During the cycling boom in the 1890s, women were considered an important market for bicycle manufacturers. Numerous bicycle companies printed their own catalogues during this period, and these often included images of women riding bicycles. Department-store catalogues followed the cycling trend and carried the appropriate riding attire and accessories including bicycle corsets. While articles in the Dry Goods Review encouraged retailers to carry bright, silk knickerbockers trimmed with lace and ribbon, mail-order catalogues carried the traditional serge or wool cycling skirts in dark colours.

Women who enjoyed sports were not limited to cycling, and by the early 20th century, golfing, riding, snow shoeing, skating, tennis, and swimming were also promoted as suitable sports. Naturally, mail-order catalogues supplied the necessary clothing and accessories. As the images illustrate, the Eaton’s catalogue carried a line of navy-blue serge bathing suits that were very popular among women at the time.


With the rise of a strong consumer culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, consumers had unprecedented choice in determining the goods they wished to purchase. As a result, mail-order companies supplied the broad range of consumer demands by offering something for everyone: traditional women’s dress and accessories, reform corsets, and dress-reform woollen underclothing, as well as clothing for women who increasingly participated in sports and leisure activities. Mail-order catalogues like Eaton’s and Simpson’s played a large role in permitting women to participate publicly in sports and leisure activities by providing them with approved sports attire which upheld concerns of Victorian respectability and decorum.