What the things we don't purchase say about us
Over the Top
by Neiman Marcus
$50.00 List Price
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