When I look at scans of ’90s Delia’s catalogs online, I feel an almost euphoric joy. It’s little bit like how I felt as a teenager, when the possibilities of the world seemed infinite and clothes still seemed like they could be a form of pure self-expression, a simple announcement of identity.
Part of the magic is nostalgia, of course, but another part is that the clothes themselves are awesome, if sometimes awesome in a hideous way. Actually, their hideousness and their awesomeness are thoroughly entwined. Looking at them, you remember all the trends from the ’90s that haven’t come back. Recent resurgence of chokers, daisy-print minidresses, and midriff-baring tops notwithstanding, no designer or fast-fashion chain has yet repopularized enormous JNCO jeans, ripstop nylon maxiskirts, and baggy cargo capris.
Flipping through Delia’s catalogs made me feel happy about how I dressed, how I looked, and even who I was.
Nineties Delia’s contained multitudes: The whole ’70s-’90s thing was represented, as was "kinderwhore" in very sanitized form, and there were even nods to rave culture. But a skater-ish, surfer-ish vibe always dominated, evinced as much by the outfits as the way they were styled and the attitudes of the models. It wasn’t athletic, exactly, but there was an overall sense that girls’ bodies were for something more than looking appealing to men. The models made weird faces at the camera and posed in defiant, awkward ways. None of the clothes were ever tight or revealing. In fact, the clothes never even really seemed to fit, but the models, being models, made them look good in a way that convinced you that clothes didn’t really need to fit.
Something about the way these catalogs were shot made teen me feel like I was cool enough to make weird, jolie-laide clothes look good with the sheer force of my attitude, a theory I pushed to its limits with many disfiguring outfits. One of my favorites, circa ninth grade, was a thrifted translucent chartreuse bed jacket worn over jeans and a thermal. Flipping through Delia’s catalogs made me feel happy about how I dressed, how I looked, and even who I was.
If that seems like giving a catalog a lot of credit, I should explain that I pretty much felt that way to begin with. My middle school and high school years were some of the happiest of my life, which is something I rarely tell anyone because it’s such a conversation-stopper. What kind of weirdo loves being 13? During those hormone-addled years, we’re all supposed to be angst-ridden basket cases, oppressed and misunderstood by the world, especially if we’re budding artiste-weirdos, and most especially if we’re girls. Woe betide us if we’re both. When I was 13, I remember reading Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher’s 1994 best-seller about the tragic loss of confidence and power that our culture enforces in young girls as they become sexually mature and thinking, "Wow, that sucks. Good thing it’s not going to happen to me."
My generation of teenage girls, if we were lucky, reaped and continues to reap the benefits of our early exposure to radical feminism.
The patriarchy crushed my spirit eventually, of course, but not until I was in college, by which time I had already become myself enough to stay that way without needing emergency soul-CPR. But I didn’t lose childhood’s sense of joy and possibility immediately when I hit menarche, primarily thanks to the great timing of having been born in 1981, just in time to enter my teenage years at the height of riot grrrl’s cultural relevance.
Even later on, as the prickly movement diffused and took on a less recognizable, Meredith Brooks’s "Bitch"-type format, my generation of teenage girls, if we were lucky, reaped and continues to reap the benefits of our early exposure to radical feminism. And when I listened to Bikini Kill for the first time, I can say with certainty that I was wearing something roomy and weird that I loved. There’s probably a 70% chance that it came from the Delia’s catalog.
Getting older means knowing what will and won’t look good on you and shopping accordingly, but when you’re a teenager your self-image is still so flexible that you can imagine that you could rock silver platform sandals with oversized cargo overalls. I still treasure the sense of possibility that I learned from leafing through these catalogs, even though my shopping euphoria comes tempered these days with a whole host of physical and fiscal insecurities.
Delia’s, after sputtering for years, is finally kaput; as I write this, they’re having a 40-60% going-out-of-business sale. From a quick spin through the bargains on offer, it’s easy to see why: Their stock doesn’t stand out much from what’s on offer in H&M or Forever 21 right now. I wasn’t tempted by anything, even at rock-bottom sale prices; I also know that clothes explicitly made for teenagers don’t tend to flatter my 33-year-old bod. But if the clothes in this 1998 catalog were available for sale right now, I would buy as many of them as I could afford.