Selling the Frontier Style
by Katherine Milliken
There is a long tradition of presenting the Canadian West as a frontier landscape. The idea of "the frontier", shaped largely by visual imagery, has romantic undertones in that it deals with the relationship between man and nature. It also implies ideas of strength and integrity, given that it is in the frontier where man tackles the landscape to make it his own. The frontier concept is seen in the Canadian government's early immigration campaigns. Intending to entice settlers to populate the Canadian West in the 1880s, the government used illustrated pamphlets and books to showcase the agricultural potential of the Prairies. These advertisements rendered the Prairies as a rustic landscape where a settler could reap the rewards of working the land. The slogan "Last Best West" evolved out of this marketing, and it fuelled the frontier myth because it suggested that the rugged yet fruitful western landscape was slowly disappearing due to settlement. Another layer of complexity was later added to the frontier concept when novels, films and art associated the cowboy figure with the romantic western plains.
The Great Western Garment Company (GWG) integrated the frontier concept into advertising campaigns initially for work clothing and later casual clothing. It was a clever approach, given that GWG made clothing for the men who settled and worked the land. GWG was known first and foremost for manufacturing durable work clothing. The slogan "they wear longer because they're made stronger" was used in GWG advertisements for many years. From 1911 to the mid-1940s, advertisements in rural-themed publications like the Farm and Ranch Review, Nor'-West Farmer, Household Handbook, GWG Almanacs, and The Country Guide showcased GWG workwear.
An advertisement for a winter parka in The Country Guide, November 1943, features a handsome young man wearing a warm parka in a mountainous forest setting. His hand gestures upwards, leading the eye to the famous GWG winged logo. The sheepskin lining of the parka, which is shown in a separate view, contrasts with the chilly snow scene in the background. The man rests an axe over his shoulder, and the fallen trees behind him suggest that he has taken control of his environment. In keeping with the frontier theme, the image implies that men can be productive and strong in the wild and cold landscape by wearing a GWG parka: The parka stands up to the elements. The text further reinforces this notion: " ... turns stormy trips and frosty chores into cosy tasks." Together, the text and image imply that not only will the parka keep one warm, but the "chore" itself becomes less onerous.
In 1948, GWG registered Driller's Drill, a new line of workwear made of high quality cotton drill fabric suitable for demanding physical labour. The Driller's Drill brand was introduced following the discovery of Imperial Oil Leduc Number One oil well in Alberta in 1947. In response to the burgeoning oil industry, GWG employed an oil-themed marketing campaign for their work clothes. In this 1950s store display card, two oil rig workers are depicted handling a pipe. The honey-coloured oil drips from the pipe and, despite the difficult nature of their work, the men handle their task with ease. Even their durable drill pants and shirts, which should be soiled given their line of work, are clean and neatly pressed. This advertisement speaks to the frontier theme because these men symbolize the new pioneers of the West. They worked the land and commanded the flow of oil and they belonged to an industry that, at the time, was charting new territory.
In the 1950s, GWG introduced casual clothing for the entire family as well as new marketing strategies. GWG started advertising in Toronto-based publications like MacLean's and The Star Weekly, both with an urban demographic. Aware of the newspapers' readership, GWG continued to illustrate the frontier theme while also introducing more urban imagery in their advertisements.
This 1951 advertisement for Iron Man pants in The Star Weekly attempts to demonstrate the versatility of the clothing in that it was both durable and attractive. In the main illustration, a not-so-subtle theme of power is evident in the way the men visually dominate the mountains and trees in the background. Their imposing stances and survey equipment imply their control over the environment. The brand names of the shirts and pants they are wearing—Iron Man and Texas Ranger—further suggest their power. However, a sense of sophistication is also evident in the ad. The men are fit, clean and healthy-looking and, although they are in a rugged environment, they are not rough. The text also reinforces the idea that this clothing will "stand the gaff on the tough jobs" yet is "down-right good-looking." Geared towards a metropolitan readership, this advertisement cleverly uses the frontier theme of conquest over the landscape to allude to the product's strength, yet incorporates a sense of finesse in the urban look of the main figures.
The frontier theme is also evident in a 1955 Red Strap pants advertisement in The Star Weekly. In the illustration, a dashing man dominates the wilderness setting. His confident posture and powerful axe piercing a tree stump reinforce his control over the surrounding landscape. The beams of light through the trees further lend him an almost god-like aura. Juxtaposed with the wilderness man is another image of a man in a family setting, holding hands with two children. The three of them are dressed in GWG garb and their smiling faces and upbeat stances convey their contentment. The frontier theme is an effective tool for suggesting the product's durability, while the family scene speaks to the clothing's casual quality. By setting up a contrast between the two illustrations, this advertisement showcases the dual nature of the clothing—suitable for work and play.
By incorporating the frontier concept into their marketing campaigns, GWG was continuing a long tradition of depicting the West as a frontier landscape. It was a clever approach because it was one that the rural, working or western consumer could relate to, and that urban people living throughout Canada could appreciate. Most importantly, this advertising strategy was effective because the frontier concept and the people associated with it imply strength and power, qualities with which GWG wanted to be associated.