The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it.
— Robert Coover
Why do I snatch up the J. Peterman catalog whenever it comes?
Not because I can’t wait to order another outfit. Most of my clothes come second-hand– and probably look it.
I’m more interested in reading the descriptions. The clothes are fairly ordinary, but what intrigues me is the mystique the writers have chosen to make customers pay shocking amounts of money to acquire them.
Here’s a man’s shirt with no visible distinction, buttoned in front with a round collar. Faded cotton in a muddy green, blue, or red. Sixty bucks.
The description begins:
“It’s Friday night at the Hog & Fool, a 200-year-old pub off O’Connell Street in Dublin. . . . Lean-faced men. Ruddy-faced women. . . . The bursts of laughter aren’t polite, but real, approaching the edge of uncontrollability.”
Can’t you hear it? Three more paragraphs touch on Irish style and writers before the reader gets to the shirt: “well-suited for both the intoxication of talk and the difficult art of listening.”
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
— Muriel Rukeyser
A page or two later, in a description of a jacket, comes this line: “For those occasions when you want to marshal all your resources, not just the bright shiny ones.”
And then there’s: “Thomas Jefferson disliked stuffy people, stuffy houses, stuffy societies. So he changed a few things. Law. Gardening. Government. Architecture.” Eventually the persistent reader discovers there’s a shirt for sale.
Salesmanship for women’s pants calls on other senses: “Days of gossip and sunbathing, green figs and Pernod. Smells of orange and lemon trees.”
Stories are medicine. . . . They do not require that we do, be, act anything . . .”
— Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I’ve evaluated zillions of essays by amateurs and professions, read thousands of well-reviewed books, but the catalog is still exciting reading. These write-ups help the company sell millions of dollars’ worth of products not much different than you can find anywhere.
What’s the secret?
This dress description opens with questions:
“Too much simplicity in your life? Yearning for a good hassle?” Follow the allure to a 1960s shirtdress.
A man’s jacket:
“The lord of the manor hated leaving the confines of his estate, perfectly happy surrounded by the birch and oak, the fainting goats. . . .” Fainting goats sell a jacket? You betcha.
Stories. Every clothing description hints at tales to be told, secrets to be revealed: the very backbone of most fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as of much excellent poetry.
Even the melancholy beginnings can draw a reader into a purchase:
“Dust storms. Drought. Poverty. Unemployment. Things were bleak in the ‘dirty 30s.’ But as in most times of struggle . . .”
Gently the narrator begins to lead the story from despair into the impulse to buy a faded denim work jacket for a hundred fifty bucks.
The latest catalog even features high-class gardening tools destined for a shed or casual display on the deck, using Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw as part of the sales pitch. Pure genius.
Writers look for inspiration everywhere. I believe serious writers can find inspiration in the most barren landscape or situation. Finding it in a clothing catalog is something else again.
“All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies,” wrote Steve Almond. The writers for J. Peterman are part of the same conspiracy that governs readers everywhere. The writer may be lying to the reader, but if the reader is enjoying it, he or she is happy to be deceived, whether purchasing clothes or reading a romance. Let this catalog be just another lesson to you!
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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