'It Allowed Me to Feel Like a Piece of Ham in a Tube Top': A Eulogy for Wet Seal
A somber reflection on the "edgy" teen retailer, which announced today that it would shutter all its stores.
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When I switched schools the summer before 8th grade, I worried I would struggle to make friends. In retrospect this didn't make much sense, because it's not like I had friends to begin with, but the new-kid narrative is a popular one in media targeting 13-year-olds: Moving 30 minutes down the interstate was going to signal an important shift in my life, I felt, and although I certainly cried, I also believed I could make something of myself in my new environment. For one thing, I would be 30 minutes closer to the good mall, which previously I only got to visit if I was seeing my dad at his house.
Soon after classes began, a friendly blonde girl in my English class invited me to her birthday party, which was to be held at an indoor soccer field. I thought this was my big break.
Eighth graders exist in many forms, and with a birthday at the beginning of the school year and a mother rumored to be quite laissez faire, this girl was on the "disturbingly like an adult" end of the spectrum; she wore tight pants and frosted lip gloss and was described by my neighbor, who drove me to first period, as "wild." I immediately accepted her invitation, excited that I would finally be able to ascend to my true status as cool, and maybe meet a cute soccer player in the process.
As long, of course, as I did not mess up my outfit. My mother understood the importance of this opportunity, and agreed to take me to the good mall.
I believe the approach I wanted to take with my outfit was "edgy, sexy adult who is aware that Halloween is coming up," so my usual stops—Aeropostale, American Eagle, Hollister—offered few appropriate options. Hot Topic was too scary, Abercrombie & Fitch too expensive. But then, as I was looking anthropologically at the Victoria's Secret display, a well-lit beacon of black-and-white striped tube tops called out to me.
Two stores down from Abercrombie & Fitch and across from FYE, Wet Seal was a regular stop on my mall circuit, although I don't believe I had ever bought anything there before. It seemed like it belonged to older girls, and I never understood how one should wear such large necklaces. But on this day it seemed like the perfect place to embark on being a cool eight grader. Better yet, they were having a sale.
I feel like I lost my virginity to that store.
Racks of fluttery sleeves and things that one could pair with cork-wedge platform heels gave way to one-shouldered tank tops and distressed denim in various icy washes. It took awhile to assess such a large and diverse inventory, but eventually I purchased magenta-and-black horizontally striped tights and a black vinyl mini-skirt with a wide attached belt that had a large circular buckle, also covered in vinyl. The skirt was about the length of a standard hardcover book, but it was stiff enough that I could pull it down to the widest part of my hips and it would sort of hover suspended over the most necessary parts of my body. Whether my mother was present for this purchase, I don't remember, but she did not object when I wore it; I believe that, on the big night, a photo was even insisted upon. I completed the ensemble with a coordinating hair accessory and some forgettable top (for balance), and I talked to zero soccer players at the party.
After Wet Seal announced today that it would close all its stores and lay off its entire staff, no one was particularly shocked. In the 2000s, at least, the clothes were cheap and prone to bizarre patterns of disintegration; the color scheme seemed to borrow equally from VH1's I Love the '80s and the Midwestern emo scene; when I walked by a Wet Seal location as an adult, I felt viscerally that anything I might try on there would give me a rash. Even if you consider that the Californian company was founded in 1962 as a beachwear retailer, the name does not make much sense: What, exactly, is the appeal of looking like a robustly stuffed aquatic mammal? And are seals ever really dry?
In many ways, it's a feat of American consumerism that the company lasted this long, its viability driven apparently entirely by unnecessary mall browsing and wide-eyed teenage sex pests. Business reporters have noted that Wet Seal's shuttering—which began in earnest two years ago, when the company closed 338 of 511 stores, though the company was plagued by struggles even in 2004, which I would instinctively consider its heyday—is just one of many casualties in the death of the mall. The Limited closed all 250 of its stores earlier this January, and according to Business Insider, both Sears and Macy's have announced mass closures.
Nevertheless, Wet Seal—which took its name from a comment made by the wife of the store's founder; whether it was meant as a good thing, I don't know, but she said a model walking the runway in a black bathing suit looked "like a wet seal"—was a site of adolescent experimentation and possibility, "edgier," according to one Broadly writer, "than other stores for teens." My feeling that I could find a good party outfit at Wet Seal resembled the fantasies of many young women fated to live out their teenage years as uncool: You could be many people at Wet Seal, it's just that none of them was good. "I feel like I lost my virginity to that store," another Broadly staffer commented. "[It] allowed me to feel like a piece of ham stuck inside a tube top."
While perhaps misplaced, this freedom to look stupid defined the teenage years of many mall-town girls. Sure, we made (grave) mistakes, but the trial and error Wet Seal permitted taught us, eventually, embarrassingly, who we wanted to be.
Before I started working on this piece, one Broadly editor questioned whether the end of Wet Seal was really newsworthy—until she remembered something she bought there. After some coaxing, she told us what it was.
"A teal newsboy cap," she admitted, finally, and encouraged me to go forth with my eulogy. "I wore it with a teal Abercrombie mini-skirt."