Writing Right with Dmitri: Practice Your J Peterman Style

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Practice Your J Peterman Style

Editor at work.

I'm wearing a new cologne.

I know, you don't care. But I bring this up for a reason. I got the cologne at a bargain-basement price from the J Peterman Company. That link is there for a reason, too, and it's not advertising. I want us to do something with it.

If you look up the bottle of cologne I bought (like I said, I had a coupon), you can read this description:

I was browsing in a Paris antique shop one winter afternoon when a fitted leather train case caught my eye.

It contained silver-handled brushes, boot hooks, a straight razor, several silver-stoppered glass bottles.

Inside a bottle, there was still the faint aroma of a gentleman’s cologne. Custom-made for a rich traveler a century ago….

Item Description for 1903 Cologne

Mr Peterman goes on to explain that, consumed by curiosity, he got the residue from this cologne examined with the help of a gas chromatograph and gas spectrophotometer. My kinda guy. Then he reproduced the cologne, which was quite reasonably priced for high-end scent. I don't buy high-end scent – or any scent, very often – but I shared Mr Peterman's curiosity as to what 1903 smelled like. So when I got the half-price coupon, I couldn't resist.

What does it smell like? Bergamot, clary sage, cardamom, frankincense, tabac. Woody, leathery. Very nice. It also brings back memories of old folks I knew when I was young folks. An adventure well worth the making.

I've been a fan of Mr Peterman's for lo, these 20 years and more. Long before he became a household name. The reason is twofold: Peterman likes to do personal archaeology in antique shops and bazaars around the world. When he finds something interesting, he reproduces it. He sells it at high prices so that he doesn't have to work too hard. (I think he's kind of lazy, and I don't blame him for that.) The research is the first reason I like his catalogue.

The second reason is the catalogue's style. Peterman has a house style that is consistently entertaining. Every item is a story. Every story is a 'you are there' fantasy about the glamorous past.


The war is over. It’s a time for hope again.

Courage to plan again. Passion to stand apart again. Alive again in a moment where “Make Do and Mend” is taboo.

Should you arrive in this yellow dress? With the flirty bow? With the swingy, pleated skirt made in light cotton, since there is once again ample fabric for these feminine accoutrements?

1945 Dancing Dress

The Peterman Catalogue is a time machine with built-in wish fulfillment. It transports you to a world where you, too, are intellectual, debonair, adventurous, heroic… He also sells a couple of neat lines of basic shirts that won't wear out, including the kind favoured by Thomas Jefferson. The shirts are surprisingly affordable. But oh, the prose style. It delights me and makes me laugh. No matter that I don't want to buy anything: I read the catalogue from cover to cover, anyway. And as I said, sometimes he has sales.

Why do I bring this up? Do I get a commission from Mr Peterman? I have never met the gentleman. I wish to see if you, too, enjoy the catalogue. And if you would like to participate in a little exercise that might stretch a few writing muscles.

Let's write like Peterman.

I'm going to put up a few photos here. See if you can make up a story about each item. If you're not sure how to do it, check out the Peterman Catalogue for models. I'll do one. The rest will be up to you.

Catalogue Items

Mme Grapanche Dinner DressMen's suit, 1770
High-heeled men's shoes, 1700Japanese ladies' handbag, 19th Century

Upper Right: Mme de Savigny's Paris salon, 1770: The room is brightly lit – what an extravagance of candles, but it is Society, and one must be comme il faut, n'est-ce pas? The crowd is just as glittering. The latest powdered wigs, the lowest-cut gowns…gentlemen are peeking (indiscreetly) through their lorgnettes. Intrusive, but strangely flattering to the fair sex. The chatter dies down when you make your entrance: elegant, but with a definite je ne sais quoi that announces your indifference to adulation. Then the murmuring starts again. Who is he? Some prince in disguise? Casanova sneaking back into town to brave the king's displeasure? What mischief does this brash colour portend? The speculation is delicious, as is the boldness of this amazing red. Like a super-fashionable tomato, aphrodisiac but dangerous. Handmade by Basque artisans in the Pyrenees. You'll be the talk of the soirée.

Now it's your turn. Space below. Include prices, delivery details, whatever you like.

It will be worth waiting until Groundhog Day to get my 'new' Teddy Roosevelt reading glasses. With the coupon, they cost a quarter of what I spent on the reading glasses I'm wearing now. Which are unbreakable, but make me look like Harry Potter. Who wants to look like a character in a kids' movie when you can imagine yourself out in the African bush? You're calmly peering through your lenses at the magnificence of a herd of elephants, when you hear a crash in the underbrush. You turn….there he is: the former president of the United States, Mr Walk-Softly-and-Carry-a-Big Stick himself. Only he isn't. Walking softly. In fact, he's louder than the elephants who have now scattered across the veldt. And he's carrying a great big gun. (Must have left his stick at home.) You clear your throat and straighten your spectacles. They lend you dignity and courage. 'Mr President,' you say, respectfully but firmly, 'we need to have a talk about wildlife conservation….'

I have written adverts before.

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