OK. I don’t really think these bits of cultural ephemera created in my nubile little child-brain the lust and longing for members of my own gender that would propel so much of my behavior through the rest of my life. So maybe mail order catalogs didn’t make me a homo. But I’m convinced they helped to shape the kind of homo I would become.
The images we breathe in from day to day help us to settle on a particular aesthetic bent. I may have been pre-programmed with an interest in men. But what aspects of manliness would eventually catch my juvenile eye wasn’t set until I had a chance to see what was out there. And living as shuttered a life as I did, catalogs were an important window into the wonders of maleness to be found beyond the confines of my room.
There was nothing as exciting as the arrival of the Sears Wishbook — the annual Christmas catalog — which seemed to hit our door sometime in late August. Not only did it give me plenty of time to drool over toys I might get, or to fetishize the four-color pages of artificial trees, ornaments and fruitcakes. But with some 400 pages in each book, there was a lot of other stuff to fire my fantasies, too.
Even before I began to lock the bathroom door and turn deliberately to the men’s underwear sections of these books, there were other images of men (and men’s fashions) that mesmerized me. The perfect man of the mid-60s catalog world became my perfect man, too. He had strong features, full lips, broad shoulders, big hands and great sideburns: all features that continue to grab my attention today.
They seem to pull me away from the present and back to the sense memories of that five-year-old boy. Suddenly, those memories are as crisp and vivid as when they were brand new. And they still hold the power to lure me into an almost trance-like state, to leave me floating outside of time and space, here and now, like the magical images of some mystical religion.
Sorry … I got carried away there.
Anyway, it was only a short path from this gateway flavor of soft porn to the hard-core debauchery of the Fall and Spring catalogs. By the time I was dragging those five-pound books around with me, I knew exactly what I was after. And to raise the stakes for my hormone-saturated brain, by this point we had already reached the early 1970s.
For those of you who don’t know your low-end men’s underwear history, those were the years of low-rise briefs, bikinis and, yes, mesh underwear. I still can’t look at those men in mesh briefs and shirts without trying desperately to find evidence of those things that are supposed to be hidden from polite view: a patch of chest hair, the happy trail leading down into the waist band of the model’s briefs or (is it even possible?) a glimpse of some real pubic bush.
I don’t expect anyone else to find something redeeming in these images — never mind something really hot — but you can still enjoy the styling of the men and the finest catalog copy money could buy.