by Catherine C. Cole
From the time the Great Western Garment Company was established in 1911 until the 1940s, the company produced primarily overalls, pants, mackinaw coats, and work shirts for men and boys. Compared to clothing worn for special occasions, workwear is rarely found in museum collections. Most GWG workwear that has been preserved consists of unsold store stock items that were acquired from old general stores that stored them away in the attic or basement when they went out of style.
The earliest GWG garment to have been located to date is a pair of men's trousers c. 1915. The trousers are interesting for two reasons. Found under the front door sill of a home that was built in Edmonton in 1915, they provide an example of the British tradition of concealing clothing near windows or door frames to ward off evil spirits. The style is unusual for the period; the pant legs are double layered in the front, which is either a patch or a feature not usually seen on work pants before the 1920s. It has not yet been determined whether the double-layered pant legs were an innovation of GWG.
They Wear Longer Because They're Made Stronger
In 1918, GWG introduced the slogan: "They wear longer because they're made stronger" and a guarantee: "The GWG label is guaranteed to give full satisfaction to the wearer in fit, workmanship, and quality and to obtain this satisfaction, should the garment prove defective, simply satisfy the merchant from whom purchased, he is authorized by us to replace it." By 1923, GWG was the largest manufacturer of work clothing in western Canada.
This early Cowboy King jacket is particularly rare. It dates back to the late 1930s and came from a blacksmith's shop in an old mining area near Rocky Mountain House that was operational until the mid-1950s. Found in a heap on the floor, a rag black from coal dust, it would have been overlooked but for the distinctive brass buttons with the red centres; not only are the buttons marked GWG, but the rivets are too. The jacket was obviously well worn over many years. The same style of jacket, with the stitched tucks in front, pleated and cinched back to provide shape and allow mobility, is seen in the GWG Spring/Summer 1939 Catalogue.
Quality Workwear was Expensive
GWG workwear was relatively expensive compared to other brands because it was higher quality. Edward Brown wrote that in 1939 he was working as a rancher in Milk River for twenty-five cents a day plus room and board: "A pair of GWG Cowboy King jeans were $2.25.... I worked nine days to pay for a pair of jeans." At the time, GWG clothing could only be purchased in independent stores, not in department stores or chains, because the larger companies negotiated reduced prices from manufacturers. GWG argued at the 1934 federal Commission on Price Spreads and Mass Buying, that it cost as much to handle 100 orders from one buyer for a chain as it did to handle 100 orders of the same size from independent buyers.
This mackinaw jacket bears a label marked "Fine tailored" and may once have been a Sunday jacket and later used for work. The mackinaw is fitted, with welt pockets and topstitched seams. Well-worn, the lining has been removed. Emily Waggott remembers making mackinaws in a separate building from the main factory that housed the leather and mackinaw departments in the early 1930s. It was a very difficult job because the fabric was so heavy and the wool produced a lot of lint.
GWG Expanded the Variety of Workwear after World War II
During World War II, GWG introduced industrial workwear for women working in factories. When the war ended, GWG initially continued to focus on workwear of all descriptions: pant overalls, bib overalls combination overalls, smocks, store coats, leather coats, stag shirts, windbreakers, mackinaws, sheepskin coats, sheepskin vests, cotton and wool work pants and work shirts, sport pants, fine shirts, and other types of work clothes including a special line of white-wear for packing plants and hospitals.
The Red Strap brand name was given to overalls, pant overalls, jackets, etc. An early pair was listed on eBay with a starting bid of $3,000. These c. 1950 Red Strap pant overalls are in excellent condition. They were meant to be comfortable for work, with wide overall leg and belt loops, and suspender buttons. Some men preferred bib overalls. Nellie Engley remembers the stitching of crossed suspenders at the back of a pair of overalls in the 1940s as a difficult task; she was relieved when she was reassigned the job of hemming pant legs.
This trucker's leg apron, c. 1950, is made of a heavy-duty duck fabric to protect the wearer's clothing. Unlike a common apron, this style has legs to prevent it from flapping around and getting caught on cargo that was being loaded or unloaded. Unfortunately we do not know who wore this apron that is now in the University of Alberta's Clothing and Textiles Collection—or whether in fact it was worn. The paper label is in good condition and the stains could have occurred while in storage rather than through use.
These journeyman carpenter's overalls from the mid-1960s are very similar to those in the 1950 catalogue (above), but they have an additional bib pocket and the 1964 GWG logo. Made of heavy-duty white cotton duck they have lots of pockets for carpenters' tools.
These are just a few of the many styles of workwear produced by GWG over the years.