How a dELiA*s catalog helped me recover my pre-teen identity

People all over the world make resolutions at the strike of the new year. Brides get makeovers before their weddings. Students try to remake themselves before the start of every semester. I can’t recall a single September — from middle school through my senior year in college — when I didn’t try to shake off my old image and become someone new.

But the summer before eighth grade was the summer of my greatest reinvention.

After a fire destroyed my family’s entire home and everything in it, a dELiA*s catalog helped me reclaim, and remake, my identity.

Two weeks before my twelfth birthday, exposed wiring and a rusty nail started a fire in our house. Luckily, no one — including my pets — was home at the time, so nobody was hurt. Unluckily, that also meant the two-story fire went undetected for quite a while, until a neighbor finally noticed smoke and called 911. By the time the fire department put out the flames, everything had been turned to unrecognizable char and ash.

It destroyed my baby pictures, family albums, and yearbooks. It obliterated my journals, poems, and beloved childhood picture books. It burnt down the kitchen where we ate family dinner every night, erased the height marks on the dining room door jamb where we traced our growth, and turned the colorful design my mother and I had painted on my bedroom floor to black.

After seeing that damage, I knew how blessed we were to be unharmed by the fire. Our things were destroyed, yes, but things were replaceable. People were not. Still, being thankful for our safety didn’t mean I wasn’t devastated by our loss.

That fire took away my identity when it turned my clothes to dust. As a 12-year-old, my style felt like the only way I could express myself to the world.

I no longer had my well-worn, well-loved Converse sneakers signed by all my BFFs. My patch-covered bell bottoms covered in drawings were as good as garbage. My vintage Addams Family t-shirt was a memory. I didn’t think I had the power to be myself anymore.

My family had insurance money to cover most of our losses, but without a home, we were living in a trailer in my backyard. There were six of us — my parents, my two sisters, a foster sister, and me — who needed to be fed, clothed, and cared for. My parents were too busy rebuilding a house to worry about my wardrobe. I couldn’t blame them for not prioritizing new clothes in my closet when we needed a new roof over our heads.

For the rest of the school year, my sisters and I made do with hand-me-downs generously donated by my older cousins, friends, and neighbors. I felt lucky to have so much support from our community, enough support to literally put clothes on our backs — but I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable and out of place in other people’s wardrobes.

Without my own clothes, I felt like I was missing a part of myself, like I was forced to live under a different identity.

A week after moving into our new house that June, I opened my mailbox to find a dELiA*s catalog waiting for me — I knew it was destiny.

There on the glossy cover was the kind of girl I was meant to be: smiling, stylish, and completely carefree.

I raced into the house and straight up the stairs into my new bedroom, pouring over every last inch of that catalog. Each page was filled with a promise: a promise to be the cool babe in a leather belt and matching butterfly clips, to be the preppy girl in pink and green plaid shorts, to be the sporty chick in all-terrycloth-everything.

Armed with dELiA*s and a dream, I was determined to reinvent myself after spending months walking around in someone else’s shoes, literally.

Like any Hermione-esque pre-teen, I made a pros and cons list for my mother, explaining why she should let me shop for back-to-school clothes from dELiA*s (our clothes usually came from stores like KMart and Dots, not fancy mall stores or catalogs.) To my surprise, she agreed, but under one condition: my shopping limit would be $50, and that included shipping and handling fees.

That night, I stayed up under my blanket with a flashlight and my dELiA’s catalog. With so many pages full of clothes, jewelry, shoes, and accessories, how could I possibly only choose a few?

There was the black and red plaid skirt with metallic buttons that would make me look like a badass, the baby blue Chinatown dress that could have come straight out of Clueless, the embroidered jeans and brown clogs that screamed maturity. There was even a pair of pink leather pants with the power to make me as cool as Britney Spears herself (at least I thought so).

I spent every summer night studying the pages of this magical catalog, trying to decide how I’d spend my back-to-school money. I even made a dream board with photos I’d cut out from a second catalog that I scored from a friend’s house.

I realized that $50 just wasn’t going to cut it — but my dreams of fashion overpowered my love of lazy afternoons. For weeks, I did any odd job I could find to earn extra cash: babysitting my younger cousins, walking dogs for the neighbors, even some basic filing at my dad’s business. At night, I’d take all my money out of its secret hiding spot — under my mattress — and obsessively count the bills over and over again, willing them to multiply to no avail.

Once I finally had the money I needed — an extra $60 to cover all of my must-have outfits — I placed my very first, very important dELiA*s catalog order. The next 17 days were spent impatiently waiting for my new identity to arrive in the mail.

I was coming home from a sleepover when I found my future waiting for me in the form of a brown box on my front porch. That night, I tried on everything — the rocker skirt, the preppy dress, the hippy clogs — and with each outfit change, I felt a little bit more like myself.

On the first day of school, I walked through the front door and knew exactly who I was for the first time in a long time.

Whenever anyone asked where I got my new outfit, I beamed and proudly proclaimed, "I ordered it from dELiA*s."

Clothes don’t make us the people we are. Brands don’t define our identities. Our personalities, our beliefs, our dreams, and our fears don’t change because of the clothes we wear — but clothes do help us express some of those hidden pieces of ourselves.

For a 12-year-old girl trying to reclaim what she lost of herself, those clothes from dELiA*s were the magic wand putting all those pieces back together.

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