Sitting on a fold-up striped chair next to an A-frame white tent, I looked lovingly at the set of red plastic plates at my side. Beside me, the male model who played my husband flashed his startlingly white teeth and waved at imaginary friends in the distance.
This highly staged camping scene was my first shoot for the Argos catalogue in the 1980s. We were promoting a barbecue, and said white tent.
I can’t pretend I was particularly proud of this shoot. Catalogue jobs were simply bread and butter money in between more lucrative advertising campaigns and TV commercials.
But I was reminded of this bygone era when I heard that Argos has pulled the plug on its printed catalogue after 47 years. It’s claimed that Covid was the final nail, but considering the internet is one giant catalogue, I’m sure its demise was a long time coming.
The first Argos catalogue came out in 1973, promising convenience and big savings. The focus was on labour-saving devices, in-home entertainment and plush furnishings.
Jilly Johnson (top right) says that while she wasn’t particularly proud of her time spent modelling for the catalogue the regular work was her bread and butter
People enjoyed flipping through it, turning down the corners of pages containing items they desired. I remember modelling one of those portable hair dryers, with the long tube and inflatable cap. How glamorous!
All these years on, the catalogue has become something of a cult classic. At the news of its closure, many took to Twitter to bewail the ‘end of an era’.
I started catalogue shoots in the 1970s, and did them intermittently throughout my 40-year career. As well as Argos, I worked for everyone, from Grattan and Empire Stores to Kays and J.D. Williams.
Whether it was clothing, lingerie or household appliances, catalogue shoots were all much of a muchness — static poses and primary coloured backdrops. The pay was meagre, but we had a blast.
Jilly Johnson at Johnny Gold’s 80th Birthday, June 2012, Mayfair, London
However, while it was great fun, what I learned about the clothes means I’d warn against getting too nostalgic for the days of catalogues.
Often the quality was shocking. It wasn’t unusual for buttons to ping off. If a fabric was too transparent, we’d add lining material. Everything was pinned because it didn’t fit well: we all walked round with bull-dog clips at the back.
You’d often see the same faces on the catalogue circuit — some models specialised in bras and thermal vests; others, hats and hair products. I was mainly knickers and hosiery, the bonus being I didn’t need make-up as my face was rarely in shot.
Sometimes, there would be five of us standing in a line: all 5ft 8in and size 10, dressed in nothing but lingerie. As the camera snapped away, we gossiped, stuffed ourselves with sandwiches and made each other laugh.
We were modelling nylon stockings, big granny knickers and an array of ghastly girdles, so we knew our heads would be cut off — and we weren’t sorry about it.
Iconic products sold in the Argos catalogue, including a curl dryer bonett
It was like being on a conveyor belt; we had as many as 60 pairs of knickers to get through a day. They each had to be shot just so, showing the pattern, a seam-free style or a particular gusset. If a pair didn’t fit you, you’d pass them on to another girl. There was no room for egos.
It was a world away from the relative glamour of the designer catwalks and top brands. Working for the likes of lingerie designer Janet Reger and Pretty Polly hosiery at the time, I was flown to such places as Antigua, Barbados and Indonesia. What’s more, I could earn up to £800 (£8,000 in today’s money) a day.
Catalogues paid a fraction, but I was grateful for the regular work. And I’m not the only well-known face to have done catalogues. Tess Daly, Holly Willoughby and Spice girl Emma Bunton all appeared in the Argos catalogue.
Throwback photos from the early 2000s shows This Morning presenter Holly Willoughby, who is now 37 and a mother-of-three, model several skimpy bras priced at £19.90
In my day, most of us attended Lucie Clayton College, where we learned not only how to walk on the catwalk, but how to show a garment’s ‘unique selling point’, be it a lining, a pocket, or the fullness of a skirt. Believe it or not, there’s quite an art to selling a rail of clothes — especially when they’re not the most elegant.
Regardless of our success, we didn’t get too big for our boots. In a way, catalogue modelling kept our feet on the ground. It was something I could always fall back on over the years.
The last catalogue shoot I did was in my 50s — for tummy and bust-controlling swimwear. When the pretty young things modelling the skimpy bikinis told me their dads remembered me, I felt like an old fossil.
Emma Willis also showed off her ample assets for the catalogue retailer in the 2000s
Alicia Douvall, former glamour model, advertises a body toning machine for £49.50 in the Argos Catalogue
Of course, as the internet grew, so catalogues began to shrink. And then a new crop of more exclusive, pared back catalogues sprang up — the likes of middle-class favourite Boden and fashionable clothing brands such as Hush.
And along with that has come diversity: models of different sizes, ethnicities and ages. High-street models are more ‘normal’ looking than they used to be.
So it’s good riddance to the catalogues of old. It was fun while it lasted, but I won’t miss all that cheap Crimplene and Bri-Nylon nighties. Nor having to lovingly smile at some plastic plates.
Tess Daly decided to cover up instead of modelling a collection of bras, seen here showcasing a cashmere cardigan