The Specialness of Catalogs

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NPR had a story a few weeks ago about how mail order catalogs have surprisingly survived in the Internet age, despite other things having gone by the wayside (e.g. the Rolodex, multivolume encyclopedias, and even physical maps). In the last year alone, there were 11.9 billion catalogs sent to US addresses. Supposedly, they’ve stuck around because they help inspire people’s purchases. Mary Winter, a woman who was interviewed for the story, said she enjoys the tactile sensation of thumbing through catalogs at her leisure and marking them up. “I typically go online […] and order whatever I’m getting,” she admitted, “but I still get my ideas from catalogs.”

Maybe this is a story about how old habits die hard (anyone over the age of thirty can probably remember ordering much of their wardrobe through such books). Or maybe there’s something special about catalogs themselves. Compare Ben Silver’s catalogs to their website, for example. We skim things when we see them online, but linger when we see them on a printed page. There’s just something about how things can be laid out. (Incidentally, Ben Silver’s catalogs might be the best in menswear today, and I’m not the only person who thinks so). 

Pictured here are some scans of Brooks Brothers’ catalogs from the years 1979 to 1983 (before the Marks & Spencer takeover). Even when illustrated, oxford cloth button downs look better laid out than they do online, as do Shetland sweaters with little wool swatches set next to them (perhaps encouraging you to imagine what such colors might look like as a full sweater, rather than revealing directly). Most of us probably get our inspiration from online forums and blogs nowadays, but there will always be a special place in my heart for catalogs. 

(photos via Katon, who has some amazing scans of old Brooks Brothers catalogs in this thread)

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