For those not familiar with the phenomenon that was the J. Peterman catalog let me acquaint you with a bit of retail history. In the late 80's a little ad appeared in The New Yorker advertising a single, simple coat. It wasn't a photo, it was just a drawing and a phone number for a catalog. And somehow it managed to completely captivate the imagination of the Upper East Side and other people who buy clothes as much for the fantasy of the item as for the item itself.
He was the real deal, in that trying to be the real deal way. He drove a Saab 900, which wasn't considered classic at the time. He lived in a lovely but small house walking distance to Harvard Square. He was a good cook. He had the perfect little beagle named Toby - I would dogsit/housesit sometimes as a break from campus life. He used Dr. Bronner's liquid peppermint soap before it was a "thing" and turned me on to the Hermes scent that is still my baseline fragrance. He had a sleigh bed. And when the hot Harvard law grad from Puerto Rico showed up randomly one night while we were having dinner at his house ... well, college is for experimentation, right? His walls were lined with photos of him from his world travels and he told me, "You don't have to be rich, just have rich friends."
When we were set to walk up to Harvard Square to see some performance art one night in the late fall of 1989 he pulled out his J. Peterman purchase, the "Opera Cape." It's not offered anymore, but it was really a quite a thing to behold: a very dramatic, heavy jet black wool cape lined with crimson satin. I was fascinated - I mean who wears shit like that? He was the first person I'd met who not only had the J. Peterman catalog, but actually bought from it. Believe me, after that I became a regular reader!
It wasn't until I'd moved to Washington, DC, and was making a sensational $18,000 a year on Capitol Hill that I finally spent money on something from J. Peterman. My boyfriend at the time routinely reminded me that I was a "situational" shopper. I would buy something because "it would be the perfect sweater for an early September weekend on Cape Cod." Or "wouldn't this be great for skiing in Vermont?" Which you know, I did maybe once.
And indeed I was the perfect victim, because not only was I still hung up on living in New England after my preppy-ass upbringing in Grosse Pointe, but I was the total romantic when it came to shopping. So this Bay Rum sounds fascinating, I'll buy it! (Unfortunately it does not smell fascinating, but I kept it.) The Counterfeit Mailbag seemed like an amazing purchase from the drawing, but brand new it kind of looked like rawhide (I returned it, after I made the fingernail scratches they recommended ...).
Returned / Not Returned
Ultimately almost everything I bought failed to meet my expectations, and I returned it. I guess that's why J. Peterman imploded when they went to the retail store fomat - nothing lived up to the glorious expectations of the ad copy and the slighty vague watercolors. But the Nantucket Sweater lives on in my wardrobe. It turns out that even though it's actually NOT all cotton, and NOT as romantic-cool-summer-night as you'd want it to be, it's a decent sweater to pair with sweatpants and at this point it's actually vintage American commerce. And now I've had it for almost the full 18 years mentioned in the catalog copy!
J. Peterman still sells some of the same things they've been selling since 1987, and I am sure somewhere right now someone is buying a band-collar shirt. Rest assured at this point that they're straight, and totally Upper East Side-ish, in the academic Woody Allen's Annie Hall sense of the word.
But once upon a time J. Peterman pandered to every prep's fantasy, gay or straight. And the gays, with their aspirations (of romance? of drama? of a normal life?), provided the perfect customer. Or at least, I did.