Thursday, February 5, 2009

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love that Little Black Dress

My life in the frozen north was briefly interrupted today when I received the J. Peterman catalogue (or Owner's Manual, as it's called on the cover) in the mail. I didn't even know this catalogue was still being published. It's a hoot to read, and I'm sure the copywriters have fun writing it: the clothes, pictured in line drawings and watercolors, are advertised not as clothes, but as cultural tokens meant to evoke nostalgic associatons in the minds of upscale, literate consumers.

There is, for instance, the "Swan Pond" blouse, whose fictional narrative concerns Truman Capote musing upon a coterie of heiresses and Hemingway ex-wives at the now-defunct high-society New York restaurant La Côte Basque in 1960. There is the ensemble in which "you" (most of these descriptions are written in the second-person singular) manage to attract the groom, Lord Randolph, at an English aristocratic country wedding, and there is the "Russian Navy" shirt ("Watch the news on TV tonight. If they're wearing striped shirts like this, it's the Russian Navy. Unless you see a dark-eyed girl paddling a green boat and her boyfriend laughs and smokes and laughs and his cigarette is slightly less than one inch long . . . then it's France"). I was just about to throw it into the recycling bin when I saw a story, about a black dress, entitled "The New Music." Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be about the premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic.

"The San Francisco Opera House is exactly the same," the ad copy goes. "Same coffered ceiling, same sweeping balconies, but the music isn't."

"J. Peterman" then goes on to describe the opera:

Long recitations from declassified government files and the Bhagavad Gita set to trilling, clattering, pulsing sounds, atonal explosions and lyrical flights.

You made it through Parsifal, Peterman, I keeep reminding myself.

Then I notice her next to me . . . . The sight of her in this dress
[the black dress pictured in the catalogue] is almost enough to persuade me to give Schönberg a second chance.

He then describes the 1940s-style organza dress, finishing with a flourish: "Kitty Oppenheimer stuck out there on that plateau in New Mexico would have killed for a chance to wear it."

I'm not quite sure how to unpack the fact that John Adams's masterful opera is being used as a foil in a catalogue to sell high-end clothing, and a negative foil at that. I suppose it's a sign of hipness to evoke the work, and another such sign not to like it. The musicologist Richard Taruskin, in this long but excellent article in The New Republic, notes the phenomenon, current since the 1960s, of the intellegentsia (though well-versed in and appreciative of the serious and avant-garde in literature, painting, and philosophy) taking a perverse pride in knowing little-to-nothing about classical music (including twentieth- and twenty-first-century art music). Art music, as J. Peterman reminds us in his catalogue, is not hip; cultural elites today vaunt their knowledge not of new art music, but of popular music from various eras, some of which they profess to like for "ironic," rather than sincere reasons; i.e., not for its merits, but for its lack of them.

The irony here is that Doctor Atomic is not an atonal work at all, and certainly nothing like Schönberg. That, and the fact that I would love to have that dress myself.


Mrs. T said...

Wow, I haven't read that catalog in years! It was unfailingly entertaining. I always wondered why he even bothered selling clothes.

Pentimento said...

I always wondered who bought them . . .

dreshny said...

That dress would look fantastic on you. Too bad you can't wear it to your event this weekend...

Pentimento said...

Dreshny, you're making these people think I have a social life!

dreshny said...

:) Well, what are friends for?

Jonathan Sexton said...

Good afternoon Pentimento,

Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Director of Marketing for The J. Peterman Company. In my daily trolling of the World Wide Web, I came across your Post... "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love that Little Black Dress". I wanted to send you a heartfelt thank you for your post. I'm always on the look out for J. Peterman followers. We thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

We are indeed alive and well here at J. Peterman. We've recently launched a new endeavor online... taking our same great copy that has made our catalog a coffee table favorite and we've created a nice community for curious minds on Peterman's Eye -

Would love for you to come for a visit to The Eye and let me know what you think... we are always looking for new and interesting people to join us in a discussion.

We just launched a Peterman’s Eye Travel Photo Contest that may interest you as well.

I hope my note finds you well.



Jonathan Sexton | Director of Marketing
The J. Peterman Company
1001 Primrose Court
Lexington, KY 40511

email: jsexton at jpeterman dot com
Follow JPeterman on Twitter:

Pentimento said...

Ha ha! Well, I was intending to provide free advertising; this is one more of the unintended consequences of blogging that I've experienced in the past year and a half!

Maclin said...

Humph. I'm almost the opposite of the intelligentsia: very interested in modern art music, but hardly at all in modern visual art, and pretty much contemptuous of the avant-garde.

dreshny said...

Too bad he didn't send you a free dress.

Anonymous said...

As a reward for services to music, and as an acknowledgement for expert advice on high-end product advertising, I hereby suggest that J. Peterman send Pentimento that little black dress.

J. Peterman catalogue
J. Peterman Owner's Manual
J. Peterman womens' clothing classics
J. Peterman apparel for the discerning
Jonathan Sexton kind and generous Marketing Manager


That should get their attention!



Pentimento said...

Oh, whoops: my comment above should read "I was NOT intending to provide free advertising"!!

Yeah, Dreshny, I was thinking a free dress might be nice. Thanks, Otepoti! ;)

Maclin, you also appreciate pop music, including the avant-garde, do you not?

Anonymous said...

Huh, Peterman is crawling out of bankruptcy . . .

Pretentiousness and shopping are a funny fit, but natural, I guess. It's based on the audience being more ignorant than the seller, or in this case the copywriter. Now, Peterman clearly knows diddly about opera, but the jokes on him; although only a tiny number of people saw Dr. Atomic, since it was on Great Performances, it's still more people than shop from Peterman.

If he suffers through the opera so much, why does he go? There must be a single-malt tasting somewhere in the world awaiting him . . .

Pentimento said...

Ha ha! That, or a safari . . .