The XX Factor

An Elegy for Delia’s (and Shopping at the Mall in the Mid-1990s)

Courtesy of Delia’s

Over the weekend, BuzzFeed reported that the tween clothing company Delia’s, a 1990s catalog mainstay that liked random capitalization and asterisks (dELiA*s), is on financial life support. Sales are down, and the company is set to be taken off the Nasdaq global market on Monday. This news was met with chagrin from the millennial women around Slate’s office, to which our baffled, one-time Limited Express–shopping Gen X editor replied, “Please explain why it mattered.” I’ll give it a try.

If you were 12 in 1994, as I was, and lived in the suburbs, you didn’t have a way to get to the mall on your own. Even if you did get to the mall, a lot of the stores there—Contempo Casuals, Wet Seal—had much more revealing clothing than many tweens would feel comfortable wearing. (I recall a brash friend of mine buying a particular cropped mohair sweater from Contempo that used to shed on everything.) But Delia’s had baggy skater pants and chunky chain jewelry and cute but not too tight baby T-shirts that offered a different, yet still fashionable, aesthetic. The brand offered a cool yet still wholesome adolescent look to aspire to.

The models also exuded the same offbeat, clean-scrubbed vibe that the clothes had. They weren’t all perfect blonds like the models in Seventeen and YM at the time. There were black girls with afros and brunettes with uneven pigtails and Asian girls with long, straight hair parted down the middle. Of course they were all still slender and beautiful, but the models in the Delia’s catalogue seemed more relatable and welcoming than the flawless ice queens in a lot of the mainstream teen mags (save the late, great Sassy). From a quick glance at the Delia’s website, the brand doesn’t differentiate itself in the same way anymore. The models on their home page are all white, and they all have the same long, boring, beachy waves that every other catalog model today rocks.

Now that the Internet exists and tween girls trapped in their suburban bedrooms can look at endless Tumblrs for style inspiration and order their clothes online, it makes sense that Delia’s has outlived its necessity. But back in the 1990s, it was a respite from scarier versions of growing up that loomed in the distance. I remember watching the movie Kids when I was around 14 because someone’s distracted parents let us rent it from the video store for a sleepover. That, combined with repeated viewings of Dazed and Confused between the years 1994 and 1996, made me terrified that when I went to high school I would have to do drugs, have sex, get AIDS, and wear really, really tight pants. At least Delia’s offered a less frightening way forward, and for that, I’ll always be grateful it existed.