Almost every catalogue has a gimmick. The oddball prose and hand illustrations of J. Peterman. The sub–Ryan McGinley photography and adolescent moodiness of Urban Outfitters. The saddle-stitched punch line that is International Male. Effective mail-order catalogues are all about fantasy: They offer us the opportunity to project ourselves into a ready-made lifestyle, maybe one where we have a gamine haircut and make occasional trips to Paris (Anthropologie) or one where we unwind from our high-powered jobs by entertaining our sophisticated friends with elaborate meals (Williams-Sonoma). Catalogues are advertisements that we like enough to subscribe to, because they don't feel like ads, they feel like escapism.
Benjamin Franklin brought the mail-order business model to the New World in 1744, when he began circulating his Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, and after he came up with the money-back guarantee, not much changed in the field until the advent of photography. Even that was slow to catch on—commercial illustrators dominated until the middle of the twentieth century. An aesthetic of timelessness still holds sway. Looking through the gallery of holiday-catalogue covers in Over the Top: Fifty Years of Fantasy Gifts from the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, one is struck by how gently repetitive they all are. So many snowy street scenes! So many representations of Santa's beard! This is a genre that's about as edgy as Norman Rockwell.
Inside the "Christmas Book," as the Dallas-based department-store chain refers to its hugely successful holiday catalogue, a shopper will find all the velvet-boxed fine jewelry and electronic gadgetry that scream department-store gift giving. But Neiman Marcus's well-honed (and well-known) contrivance is to also offer a few extravagant and unusual items each year, the more ostensibly useless the better. That almost nobody buys the Swarovski-crystal pavé Mr. Potato Head, the authentic Gypsy wagon, or the custom backyard golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus is quite beside the point. (Neiman Marcus HQ isn't exactly drowning in unsold $15,000 gingerbread playhouses; many of the fantasy gifts are in fact available only by special order.) The job of these pricey trinkets is to bring the buzz, and this year, the unveiling of the holiday catalogue was covered by the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Daily News, and the Associated Press wire—not bad for a news peg that remains, like the catalogue as a form, essentially unchanged from year to year. Gimmicks work.
It's surprisingly fun to page through Over the Top, which collects ninety-four fantasy gifts spanning the past fifty years, if only to remind oneself that it was possible in 2009 to buy, for $25,000, a car shaped like a cupcake. "Slip under the muffin top, and let the world figure itself out for a while," advises the copy. There are also his 'n' hers hot-air balloons and personalized life-size Lego statues. It's as ridiculous and delightful as SkyMall, albeit more expensive.
Aside from just being funny, though, there's an element of class at play here: Despite appearances, this isn't a luxury catalogue for the über-wealthy, who generally value discretion even more than they do $195,000 fully restored vintage Airstream trailers. After all, there are catalogues for things like private jets and luxury yachts, and the Christmas Book is not one of them. As a publication, it's aimed squarely at the "aspirational" middle-class shopper, someone for whom a veiled opportunity to snicker at the presumed gullibility of her betters is probably a real wallet opener. Pick up the Christmas Book to gawk at the $1.5 million pool floor designed by Dale Chihuly, and suddenly the $95 scented candles and $40 bookmarks look like sensible purchases.
Over the Top doesn't set out to assess its topic in any systematic or probing way—the introductions from retiring CEO Burt Tansky and communications director Kelly Anne Carter are light fare. But the gift selections over the years reflect wider social trends, particularly the emancipation of women and the popularization of the environmental movement. Take the first of the retailer's many his 'n' hers gifts, offered in 1960—a pair of private airplanes. For the husband, there's a $149,000 behemoth that looks like it could cross the Atlantic. The wife's tiny, $27,000 single-prop puddle jumper looks like it might sputter out well below thirty thousand feet—but the models playing the happy couple are embracing anyway. (Carter says a "West Texas rancher" actually bought one for his wife, who "had been hankering for a plane of her own for a long time.") Eight years later, a suggested gift for the lady of the house was a device called the Telequote III, a stock-tracking computer. "No more dinner conversations about what happened at the grocery store," Neiman Marcus promised, for "she'll have fascinating tidbits about another market." In the picture, little wifey is shown disinterestedly tapping at her Telequote while dressed in a caftan and slippers.
Also in 1968, the his 'n' hers gifts included a pair of "jaguars"—which sounds cute, until you realize that the spotted coat ($5,975) worn by the model leaning on the British convertible ($5,559) is made from the pelt of the real animal. (The trade in jaguar fur wasn't outlawed until 1973.) As if by way of penance, Over the Top reprints this tableau opposite two 1999 gifts Neiman's offered with the Nature Conservancy: a $200,000 tract of ecologically endangered land "that will be named for your loved ones for millenniums to come," or, for $35, an adopted acre of threatened rain forest.
There are other world events reflected, however oddly, in these handsome, gilt-edged pages. It seems that when economic strife is at its highest, the "fantasy" gifts are at their least imaginative—1973, for example, offered a bag of loose diamonds. Just a bag. With diamonds in it. The year of Operation Desert Storm, Neiman Marcus suggested couples buy themselves Hummers in a choice of red, white, or "sand." Vehicles, in fact, are the only fantasy gifts that consistently cross the Christmas Book's reality barrier: The limited-edition luxury cars often sell out, sometimes within hours. And the catalogue abounds with elaborate conveyances: Submarines, yachts, junk boats direct from Hong Kong, personal hovercrafts, Learjets, five-hundred-horsepower concept motorcycles, helicopters, and dirigibles have been featured, and each is archived here. We all want to believe our money can transport us.
More intriguing than the vehicles and the overpriced tchotchkes, though, are those gifts that attempt to address deeper vulnerabilities. Although the $3,000 his 'n' hers mannequins and the $73,000 cell phone are funny (and also, in the case of the mannequins, creepy), neither is quite as intriguing in its pointlessness as the "privacy capsule," an $80,000 egg-shaped fortress of bourgeois solitude that is accessible only by sterling-silver punch-card key. (Presumably, it would suit those who don't get sufficient alone time in the MiniSub.) Readers of the 1978 catalogue could pay $90,000 for a safe-deposit box located inside a granite mountain in Utah and protected by hair-trigger alarms, available on a fifty-year lease. More recently, 2004 offered a $20,000 made-to-order re-creation of a fifteenth-century suit of armor, convenient for those who spend weekends slaying dragons and saving princesses.
Printed catalogues are relaxing. You can flick through one on the couch or in the bath. Yet like most printed media—and, for that matter, most forms of relaxation—catalogues are increasingly threatened. Bloomingdale's discontinued its catalogue in 2008, as did J. C. Penney in 2009. Sears—whose pioneering contributions to mail order will be familiar to readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder—no longer prints a general catalogue. The list goes on. What has arisen in their place is online retail.
If catalogues are fantasy, then online shopping is utility— tapping at a keyboard and jockeying tabs of product shots even feels like work. A catalogue is a wonderful technology for making you desire something you didn't even know existed, while a store website is a great tool for locating and buying exactly what you already know you want. The Neiman Marcus Christmas Book isn't quite of a dying breed, but between 2009 and 2010, the chain's catalogue sales fell by 19.2 percent, while online sales rose by 10.2 percent. This year, Neiman's offers its holiday catalogue as an iPad app.
But the Internet is also spurring a renewed interest in catalogues as containers of fantasy. Fashion bloggers and users of online forums repost catalogs—especially the more atmospheric ones, like J. Crew's, or anything unearthed from last century—with commentary or even invented story lines. (Some of these writers do a better job of fondly dissecting catalogues than Over the Top does.) We seem to regard catalogues with more affection than we do other forms of advertising, despite (or perhaps because of) their silly, here-I-am-at-the-beach-wearing-four-necklaces-and-high-heels staging and (duh) materialism. Perhaps it's because the experience of reading one is strangely intimate, an invitation to think of the places you could be as much as of the coffee tables you could own. Tansky writes in his foreword that his only criterion for a fantasy gift is that the very notion of it "should make people smile and shake their head with amusement and amazement." It's not entirely that simple, of course, but it turns out amazement can be a powerful draw.
Jenna Sauers is a writer in New York who blogs for Jezebel.