Blast from the past - Catalogues

Long before the internet, mail order catalogues, those big glossy books of dreams, offered us ‘shopping from the safety and comfort of our own homes’. HELEN MCGURK flicks through the past

Saturday, 15th May 2021, 7:00 am
Home exercise equipment in a 1976 edition of the Argos catalogue

Growing up during the 1970s and 80s, I can clearly remember the heyday of catalogues, or ‘club books’ as they were better known in my part of the world.

Kays, Great Universal, Freemans and Grattan were a fashion lifeline for country teens, whose nearest town had one uninspiring clothes shop called ‘Margaret’s Boutique’ or ‘The Dainty Lady’ and was more inclined to sell spun polyester jersey nighties for farmers’ wives, than acid-washed jeans for Kajagoogoo-obsessed 13-year-olds.

My favourite time of year was when a new club book, as large as a phone book (remember those?), and heavier than a small child, was delivered to our house, offering manna from mail-order heaven and tingling anticipation of what lay inside its glossy pages.

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Endless hours were spent lying on the swirly carpet poring over pictures of nattily-dressed lantern-jawed men pointing into the distance. Or the ‘catalogue cad’, who on one page sported Farah slacks with a beaming brunette by his side, then a few pages on was pictured wearing and a snug-fitting polo-neck beside a tanned blonde, with not the faintest trace of guilt on his cheesy chops!

There were perfect women in slinky eveningwear and, of course, the risqué section dedicated to swimwear and intimate apparel. I know certain households where these pages were ripped out to save young innocent eyes, and, quite possibly, rocky marriages.

Flicking through the 1,000-plus pages was pure escapism, a portal to a fantasy world of pedal-pushers and puffball skirts, sheepskin rugs, and continental quilts. Then placing an order by phone, paying it off at 2p a week for 400 weeks, until it arrived and looked nothing like the picture!

King among catalogues, was the encyclopaedic Argos which the retailer sadly dispensed with last year. An aunt from Belfast brought it to our house and I’d hungrily devote hours to in-depth study of the pages, picking out my dream purchases - a Swingball, a Toshiba ghetto blaster, Walkmans, hi-fis and solar-powered Casio calculators - I rarely got any of them, but I could dream, couldn’t I?

Fast-forward 30 years and the catalogue is having a moment once again, with a new generation of chic brands. But, they’re just not the same. Club books were naff and they appealed to our inner naffness. Hostess trolley, anyone?