As adolescent boys growing up, we were fascinated by the catalogue. Back then, there were few clothing shops. As a result, many people bought their clothes from the catalogue. Essentially, the catalogue was a full colour brochure displaying clothes of all kinds for all sexes and ages. The idea was that if a potential buyer chanced on an item they fancied, they would simply place a mail order and, in a given time, the parcel containing their order would arrive at the post office.
The system was very efficient and I don’t recall anyone complaining that their order had not arrived. The transactions were based on trust. I suppose if any catalogue line had decided to play funny it would have gone out of business in no time. The catalogue had an ingenious way of attracting new customers. Anyone who placed an order would be asked to fill in a slip recommending other people to which the next edition would also be sent.
In that way almost everyone was ensnared. The other thing about the catalogue was that there was no exclusivity. There was nothing like designer labels. The catalogue sold mass produced clothing for mass markets. Many a time someone would be sported in the locality wearing a certain dress and those in the know would, with a nonchalant wave of the hand, tell everyone within earshot the name of the catalogue from which the dress came. Also, it often happened that at a public occasion somebody who thought they were dressed to kill would encounter a couple of other revellers wearing a similar outfit.
There was no secrecy. Because the parcel came through the post office the workers knew which people in the locality had placed an order. The staff tended to be gossipers and because their job was to process the mail order, they knew upfront who had placed an order for new clothing. They told their friends and at the end of the month the curious and the envious would be waiting in keen anticipation to see the latest attire unveiled.
The catalogue flourished despite such hiccups. It served a need. It also gave many people the opportunity to dress well and impress their friends and relatives.
Later on, as incomes improved and more people joined the working class, the catalogue added more items. You could buy music records and cassettes through mail order. There was even a foldable wardrobe, which, in real life, was much smaller than it was in the pictures. But it was the appearance of electronic appliances which caused a tizz. The catalogue was up to date. As more people got electricity it moved with the times and sold them electronic goods.
Suddenly, amongst the clothing displayed on its pages were additional glossy pictures of electronic appliances. A favourite appliance was the fridge. It was a status symbol.
Not only did the catalogue display pictures of various makes of fridges. The fridges were displayed loaded with all types of food. Most of the foodstuffs displayed we had never eaten. But they looked more appetising than what we were accustomed to.
Apparently, many gullible people placed orders for a fridge only to throw a tantrum when it was delivered minus all the food. They had my sympathy. As far as I was concerned, they had been led up the garden path. Why display a fridge in all its delicious finery if the food was not going to be delivered? It was unfair. There were whispers about disgruntled neighbours who threatened to return their new fridges but did not know where to start. They were stuck with an empty fridge and it was for them to fill it up with nice food. With life being difficult those days, the fridge for most of the time contained only cold water bottles and ice cubes. At least the bottles came along with the fridge. Were it not for the water bottles, I can bet you many of those fridges would have just sat there: sad, forlorn and empty. But there were other interesting pages in the catalogue.
There was the lingerie section. Here models in full splendour displayed panties and other underclothing. This was our favourite page as youngsters. We did not care for the pages showing the clothing for adults. We had many years to go before reaching that stage. As for the kids’ clothing range it was also a waste of time. After all, we were only going to get new clothing at Christmas time. So we turned our attentions to the lingerie pages. A group of boys would gather around a catalogue and distribute the lingerie models amongst themselves.
It was a nice game but which had to be played away from the sight of grown ups. Many a skirmish would break out over a contested lingerie model. But even then, no one ever told those outside the circle the cause of the fights. Because the catalogue was aimed mainly at black readers all the lingerie models were black. But as the competition heated up, more innovate ideas were needed to hook up customers.
Within the circle of young boys the thrill came when the catalogues decided to feature white and Indian lingerie models. At the beginning, it was a little confusing. Between white and Indian who were prettier? And more fights broke out between young boys who would claim an Indian model but end up with a white one, and vice versa.
The catalogue, of course, went out of fashion with the emergence of more local shops. With the rise in incomes people shunned mass clothing. The little fad of displaying a fridge full of food, which would not be delivered, also died away. But I think the catalogue must account to all those people who were defrauded. Lately, everyone is being paid compensation. The Jews were paid out a few years ago by the Swiss banks. The Hereros in Namibia are also lining up to get their dues from the Germans.
Next door, Old Man has told the white farmers to come and get compensation for the land he seized. I think the catalogue companies must also pay compensation. For trauma and embarrassment caused, they must pay all those people who bought fridges that came without the food!