An Ode to ’90s Shopping: Delia’s, Wet Seal and Deb Closing Forever
I spent the majority of my childhood wearing clothing—nay, outfits—from Hartstrings, otherwise known as the matching mecca of the free world. Everything I wore from Hartstrings came in sets. Shirts matched jumpers matched headbands matched socks. I was like a little walking panel of wallpaper, swathed head to toe in florals, or strawberries, or whales.
After years of matching, I rebelled. In sixth grade, I began poaching my dad’s jeans, lopping off a few inches at the bottom with scissors and then changing into them on the school bus.* I paired these pants—haphazardly paper-bagged on my waist with a weird rope belt—with marker-scribbled Vans and No Fear t-shirts (though, truth be told, I feared pretty much everything). I even owned a Stone Temple Pilots t-shirt, which was my prized possession for at least two years. In terms of fashion statements, it didn’t say much, but what it telegraphed was far more important to a pre-teen: “I listen to cool music” and, even better: “My parents let me go to a concert.”
Sometime during this stage, the Delia’s catalog began arriving at my house. It was like getting Moses’s stone tablets in the mail. This was the style bible, even more so than YM and Seventeen. You’d go to those magazines for very scientific quizzes that could predict whether or not your crush liked you back. You went to the Delia’s catalog to tune into the pulse of teenage fashion and culture. The styles were all very retro, but we didn’t realize that at the time.
“As a girl locked in the woods of Vermont, it was my access to mainstream America,” says my friend Jess, who now has a closet full of Chanel and Prada. “I had to have what Six was wearing. And avoid what Blossom had on.” Pause. “Wait, Six was the cute one, right?”
It was true. Not only were these clothes trendy and fashionable, they were accessible. The girls modeling the clothes looked almost like they could be your friends, if, you know, you were cooler and more stylish. They were vaguely innocent, even as they wore tiny baby-doll tees and spaghetti straps (spaghetti straps!).
“I would read the Delia’s catalog over and over as if it was Seventeen magazine,” says my other friend Ashley. “I still remember some of the ‘looks’. Plaid mini skirts with white Doc Martens. Girls in pigtails. They just always looked like they were having way more fun than I was having in high school.”
Speaking of high school, it was around this time that my baggy, skater-esque clothes were traded in for pieces that looked like they were ripped from the set of Clueless: a short kilt-like skirt, neon-green patent leather clogs, a short-sleeved angora sweater that shed ferociously, even after long stints in the freezer.
I also experimented with Wet Seal. Everything at this store was tiny, like it had been shrunk in the wash. Parents hated this store. This store sold pants—scratchy polyester pants with a vague bootcut—in tiny sizes. I bought two pairs of them, in brown and a pale sandy color, and I wore them every weekend with clunky heeled boots. I felt very chic.
Deb was less chic. I only ventured there once or twice, in desperate search of a pair of knee-high black boots that would fit over my freakishly muscular calves. (I did find a pair there, though if I remember correctly, they soon fell apart.)
Though I’ve walked by most of these stores since then and never ventured in—in fact, I’m sure I’ve sputtered an incredulous “That store is still open?!” many times—I still felt a pang of sadness when I learned that all three of these stores are closing forever. Delia’s announced it was liquidating all merchandise and filing for bankruptcy last month. Last Friday, Wet Seal announced it was also filing for bankruptcy, an announcement that shocked no one. And Deb, that other chugging machine of cheap tween clothing—which is based in Philly (who knew?)—announced its closure last week, after 80 years (80 years!) in business.
This was the look of my adolescence—of an entire generation—the whole awkward, cheesy, embarrassing lot of it. Sure, we eventually grew up and moved on to American Eagle and Abercrombie.** Or maybe to Express and The Limited. (The Limited Too, yet another of my pre-teen haunts, was bought out by the company that owns Justice, a bedazzled kid’s store of blinding fugliness).
Years later, we would find our way—to J.Crew, or Neiman Marcus, or Chanel, or H&M, or The Gap, or vintage stores. But these stores were our style playgrounds. They introduced us to fashion, to shopping, and they let us pretend to be people we weren’t yet, to try on different personas until we found one that fit. And even though my Delia’s clothes have long since been the victims of relentless closet purges, traces of them can be found, I suppose, in my vintage shift dresses, my retro Missoni headscarves, and my big vintage Lucite cuffs. I’ve ditched the neon-green patent leather clogs, though. Some things—like polyester pants, short-sleeved angora sweaters and cheap leather boots—are just better left in the past.
* For the record: Sorry, dad. That was sort of a jerk move.
**After I decided to go to school in New England, I stocked my closet with pieces from both stores, determined that I would lead a properly collegiate life in preppy, professorial style. This lasted for about a month, and then I entered my hippie/artsy bohemian phase.