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It was a dark and stormy J.Peterman dress


Words do this to us. They feed us even before we see. They build expectations. They are things too. And they lead us to see other things in a certain way. Words activated like and paired with the visual are the message.

It was a dark and stormy J.Peterman dress

Andrea Chesney

It's hard to believe we haven't yet raised a Harvey Wallbanger in a leather-gloved hand to the wordsmithing genius of the J. Peterman Company catalog. So here goes. Bottoms up!

Surprising our mailbox again today after originating as the guilty-yet-name-dropped delight of clever sartorial royals who traversed the 1990s, the J. Peterman Company catalog offers a painstakingly crafted, boredom-be-damned, curated collection of rare bird splendor. It woos the shopper via the kind drawings a very fine illustrator might come up with when he or she is besotted and mostly wearing nothing in a secret Italian love nest or a Napa vineyard retreat. Everything moves its hips! Everthing sways! Everything feels like it is ready to call you over, or fall off a gorgeous body!

Back then one saw the wearers of J. Peterman pieces at parties in Cambridge and at dinner in the East 80s and on Friday afternoons in the boardroom of the CFO. It was a time when one's date showed up at the door in a J. Peterman jacket, and you knew the evening's plans would involve not just a movie and a pizza, but maybe a small private plane and friends from a Spanish literary ranch, one of whom might have been married to a Kennedy for a weekend. A date after which you might expect to get a shrunken monkey's head with emerald eyes and a note in code, rather than a mere call.

Ah but the words. The luscious words and sentences. These J. Peterman words WERE things.

They made images pop into your mind that the even the most trouble-making illustrated roué of a jacket could not fully explain. With their power, the J. Peterman words created strange excuses to spend and buy and dream, all by plumbing the depths of your most indulgent visions of yourself. Your most secret experiences. Your obsession with Milan Kundera and Marquez and Stein and Loos, with Bowie or Eastwood or Jagger (Bianca, of course), with even the thrilling poetry of a baseball slingshotted well into the night.

In a way, the words of J. Peterman were the ancestors to the song of the blogger. They were personal, fantastic, funny, moving, strange, world-opening. They were not just copy. They were voice. They were bigger than your life, and invited you along. The iconic Seinfeld sitcom famously turned all of this wordplay into a story arc, a key character, and a missing way of life. To an America that was feeling the itch of fresh hedge funds and six-figure publishing deals, the show revealed that the country wanted something more to define the moment's success. And it suggested that what America wanted was perhaps for all this to be sort of real. J.Peterman had turned into America's last Hemingway. It was the Old Man & The Coat,  and suddenly the catalog's fans could tune in and see their secret world leader talk and walk. The show gave people a reality posed inside a fantasy, a stylish parallel-universe something in a show about nothing, as superbly portrayed by John O'Hurley and cast with splendid scripts in over 20 episodes.

So getting a J. Peterman catalog again in the mail today is a bit of a shock plus a vintage style fan's flashback plus a gift. It's exactly the same as you see it in online archives. Who knew it was still around? But it is, still coolly itself, once more family-owned. Still offering vintage-style select men's clothing that today we might expect to see worn by the Most Interesting Man in the World when he goes to lunch with Captain Morgan to discuss selling a mountain to the director of the Hobbit films while The French Actress flips through a script, swinging her foot in a ribboned blue shoe. And yes, the women's clothing is still sold with those whiskey-scented words of male longing and fond remembrance, while the artwork is perhaps slightly more sedate, just in case a female minister of world finance is considering the Carmel Dress too.

We think that the uptight glued-on-pants serious-work-skirts boy-hips no-ironing-in-the-burbs worlds of other catalogs must be peeking through the hedges with fear and longing. How nervous they must be spitting out the same old khakis with spring water in their veins. Because here's the J.Peterman catalog resuming its naked-desire cultural lounging, reclining upon today's primly trimmed 40% off retail lawns with a pitcher of bourbon and a frequent flyer black card at its side.

And what clever timing, post Steampunk, a plop into a time when the special destination shop keeps showing muscle (surf wear shops, Sunspel, bespoke labels, curated vintage, and Mr Porter's new takes on the Gentleman's Wager). The moment seems right, the wind is blowing. How will it all re-percolate? 

Here's to you, J. Peterman, and your confident stride back into our lives with perfect covers and perfect typography and Otavalo Mountain Shirts and London Walking Shoes. To your proud determination to not just sell more stuff to us, but to actually add to our lives that lost spirit of well-played adventure we're all missing now. A did-that, will-do-this promise cut of cloth and leather that murmurs "yes, there's more" to tired ears and winks at eyes wearily perched over a drab scorched earth of paper coffee cups, chain-store chipotle and smartphones.

Keep turning up around the corner, or at the table in the back of the corner of bar in the restaurant near the waterfront in Fano, Italy, Mr. Peterman. We'll spot you there. You're holding not a Kindle, but a rare book of Vatican or astronomy secrets on which blood and coconut milk and the tears of a tennis star have been spilled, your place marked with a VIP casino card given to you by an unhappy princess who wanted to thumb a ride to another continent...

We'll fold up our 2014 safety-net life and rise from our chairs, and join you for a timely escape. A moment of heady, now-or-never acquisition that will feel like it can only be followed by one last letter sent in an old tissue airmail envelope, with a wonderfully lurid stamp, an ink stain, and the scent of a cigarillo stubbed out by a fine boot in a private lemon grove. Sent forth on an evening when the rain finally stopped and the splendid sport car is pointed to the horizon, humming to make its way to a hillside rendezvous under a supermoon one more time. Shop soon, because you really need to for the sake of your restless soul: