Twenty years ago, Seventeen magazine asked eight young people for their predictions about what life would be like in the year 2020. One then-20-year-old said that we'd have our first woman president by now; another thought we'd be cloning all of our endangered animals to prevent them from going extinct; and a 12-year-old was really hoping for a set of magnetic chopsticks.
Fast-forward two decades, and the chopsticks kid is probably the only one who isn't profoundly disappointed. It's also probably harder to imagine what the future will be like just one year from now than it was for those now-adults to speculate about 2020, which sounded so brilliantly futuristic at the time. Our expectations for the future may shift dramatically depending on who's elected in November, as well as what happens with a global pandemic that no teen magazine ever prepared us for (though, they did a solid job convincing us that we could get Toxic Shock Syndrome at any moment).
With the fear and uncertainty that seem to fill every waking moment, it's not hard to understand why so many women—especially those who have owned more than one piece of Paul Frank merch—are heavy into mid-to-late-90s nostalgia right now. And nothing seems to embody that time period better than the catalogs for then-white-hot teen fashion brand dELiA*s.
If you remember reaching past your mother's Redbook and empty Publisher's Clearing House promises to pull the latest dELiA*s catalog out of the mailbox, I hope you're using a good nighttime moisturizer. If you don't—and if you're still too young to worry about how your neck skin looks in natural light—here's the deal.
dELiA*s was founded in the early 1990s by Steve Kahn and Chris Edgar, two thirtysomething Yale grads. The first catalog (or "teen apparel book," as it was called at the time), was sent out in 1994, and it wasn't an immediate hit. The company originally pitched it to college-aged women, who had other in-person shopping options and apparently weren't interested in this one. So the brand stopped distributing the catalogs on college campuses and started running ads in the back of teen magazines, and the younger demo jumped on it, fast. "We got a huge response from high school kids," Kahn said in 1998. "So basically the market found us."
Just four years after its launch, dELiA*s total annual revenue was pushing $180 million, and more than 55 million catalogs were sent out every year. (At its peak, the company received between 3,000 and 5,000 catalog requests every single day.) The brand was mail-order fast-fashion, before fast-fashion was even a thing, allowing teens to get their hands on up-to-the minute trends, regardless of where they lived or what kind of stores were in their local shopping mall.
dELiA*s seemed to arrive with a fully formed style of its own, selling baby tees, tomboyish long-sleeves, wide-leg jeans, body glitter, and other items of clothing that may or may not have been highly flammable. And each page was ringed with MiXeD cAsE mantras (examples: BlaMe oTherS. EaT tHe dAisIeS. forGeT thE liTtle PeoPle.) that became another of its unique signatures.
"I have 15 dELiA*s catalogs that are all my originals," 37-year-old Jill Apolloni told VICE. "I was 12 or 13 when I got the first one in the mail, and even after moving many, many times, and purging so much of what I owned, I have never let go of these."
Apolloni, who has managed several sites dedicated to 1990s nostalgia, has posted scans of some of her dELiA*s collection to Flickr, where individual pages have received thousands of views.
"They're like part of my coming-of-age story or something, which is crazy because they're just mail-order clothing catalogs, and honestly I didn't buy much from them," Apolloni said. "Looking through them now immediately brings me back to that time period, to poring over each catalog in my bedroom, listening to music and picking out all the outfits I wanted. It was very much an aspirational thing for me, because everything just looked so cool, and I was very fixated on what cool older teens were wearing and doing."
There are other Instagram accounts that post dELiA*s catalog flip-throughs, and some catalogs described as "rare" and "hard to find" go for hundreds of dollars on eBay. One eBay seller told VICE that, based on the steadily increasing prices for his own auctions, he expects these catalogs to hit the thousand-dollar mark within the next year—yes, one thousand dollars for pics of bottle-cap belts and Bulldog carpenter corduroys. The influence of the catalog has even seeped into popular entertainment; Melissa Walker, the costume designer for Hulu's hit turn-of-the millennium middle-school comedy PEN15, said that buying the brand’s old catalogs on eBay was an essential part of nailing the look the show was going for.
"I think one of the coolest things that came out of dELiA*s is that it changed the way you were allowed to buy clothes," Stacie Janelle Fishman, who modeled for the brand from 1994 until 1999, told VICE. "I mean, you were buying catalog clothes, but you couldn't find these cool underground clothes anywhere else, unless you were living in California and had Melrose [Avenue], or in New York and had St. Mark's Place at your fingertips. You couldn't find ball chain [necklaces]. You would have to go to the hardware store and pick a ball chain for a necklace."
The antithesis of the supermodel-driven high fashion of the mid-90s, the catalog's personality-driven teen models goofed around for the cameras, serving lewks that J.Crew or The Limited could never. It also sold a kind of confidence that you couldn't (or didn't) see from other retailers at the time, a combination of elements that made teens study it with the reverence that previous generations reserved for religious texts.
"I definitely felt very cool when I wore dELiA*s, which I think has something to do with the fact that the catalog itself was not some staid thing," says Erin McCarthy, the editor-in-chief of Mental Floss. "It was designed to feel like one of your cool friends: a girl who loved hanging out with her friends, dressed for herself, and was a little quirky, asking bizarre questions, making weird-but-funny faces, and doing the whole up-and-down type thing… It was definitely a different picture of what cool could be, at least when compared to the girls at my school who were popular. They tended to be aloof and sometimes mean, which was the opposite of who the fictional 'Delia' was."
Fishman said that the models really were just being themselves, and working for the brand really was that cool. "I was just a dorky tomboy coming into this world [of fashion modeling]. I was mentally going through a lot on the outside world and then having a place like dELiA*s, it was like therapy, you know? You can go to this place and just be who you are," she said. "All of the people were just the coolest—the makeup artist, the hairstylist, the photographer, his wife, everybody—and it just made you feel confident."
Fishman also says that dELiA*s shoots were actually therapeutic in many ways for the models. "When we were in that studio, we could talk about whatever we wanted, speak our minds, play loud music, scream, and cry if we needed to. I think that's what made that confidence come through. Maybe we weren't secure about ourselves in the outside world, but when we were all together in that space we were. It felt like a family. It felt like this was ours, and our moment to be ourselves."
But why do these 25-year-old teen fashion catalogs still prompt such distinctly unshakeable feelings of nostalgia today, and, why do they still resonate so deeply with so many of us? Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College who studies nostalgia, says that it's most likely a combination of factors related to those times when we were locked in our bedrooms, circling a pair of impractical avalanche pants that we wanted to order.
"Teen fashion is a powerful trigger for the feelings we had when we experienced so many important milestones in life. As teens, people experience their first love, get their driver’s license, obtain an independent source of income, and most importantly, reflect on who they are separate from their parents and family. The teen years are perched at the threshold of adulthood," she said.
"The catalogs are concrete triggers that can elicit both the memories of our teen years and the exciting wonderful feelings we had then. And by eliciting nostalgic feelings and memories, the catalog pics can prompt a person to reflect on how far they’ve come in life since those teen years. Such reflection can encourage introspective critiques of what we’re happy with or what we might regret about the choices we’ve made, what we’ve achieved, and how far we’ve grown beyond the person we were then, or how faithful we’ve remained to who we were back then."
The fact that this year has been such a terrifying shitshow could also be another reason why we're interested in browsing the #delias hashtag on Instagram, or are willing to drop $250 for the "Back to School 1997" catalog on eBay.
"During the social isolation imposed by the pandemic, nostalgia has encouraged people to reach out to others, connecting with loved ones from afar and reconnecting with people we’ve lost track of along the way," Batcho said. "Exchanging nostalgic pics or videos with others helps people feel a little less alone. Posting 'Remember this?' on social media can gather together people who do remember those fashion trends or catalog pics. It can even bring together those who haven't had experience with them, as they ask 'Really?'"
We're also one of the first generations who have had constant access to the internet, which has made it easy for us to find products and images from our youth and keep our favorite memories close. "Our childhoods in the 80s and 90s were full of iconic things that really defined us," Apolloni said. "We brought our favorite characters with us as we aged, in the form of graphic tees, binge-watching seasons of TV shows and cartoons, and going to see our favorite reunited 90s bands on tour. We just want to keep a piece of that feeling going."
And if scrolling through old dELiA*s catalogs are one of the things that keeps us going in the face of, you know, all of this, then we should absolutely keep doing it. We should keep remembering that time when the worst thing we could imagine was going to our eighth grade graduation in the same mail-order fit as someone else, if it helps to preserve our sanity.
"When I look at dELiA*s, I find that happy place again," Fishman said. "I think 'OK, that was good. Everything wasn't so bad.' I think as we get older, we lose that spark, or we're scared to show it, because we're worried that somebody might see us or we'll look stupid. I look back on those times and I think 'Wow, I really want to retain that spirit.' I need some of that for my life now."