Growing Up Abroad, the Delia’s Catalog Was My Connection to America

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The community center’s lights turned everyone a bruised green color, and despite the chill, a ceiling fan had been turned on for “air circulation purposes.” We all stood six feet apart, pretending not to notice the large black house fly that landed on each of us in a brazen display of rule-breaking. I was voting early in Massachusetts, standing in line with my husband, waiting to feel the subtle change that would come as I colored in the circle for a new president. Somber faces lent an air of gravity to the occasion, but for me there was an added layer of significance. It was the first time in my life that I had cast my ballot in person.

I come from a long tradition of absentee voters, and watched from a young age as my parents stuffed their own ballots into the embassy’s diplomatic pouch and sent them off to be counted back in the States. It wasn’t until I was approaching my teen years, that I realized people showed up to vote at all. Both my mother and father were career Foreign Service officers, who moved our family to a different country every two years. This made me a “Third Culture Kid” or TCK, a term coined by the American sociologist Ruth Useem, which defines the experience of expatriate children who spend their formative years outside of their passport country, usually due to the profession of their parents.

Though I was born in Florida, it was only three weeks later that I boarded my first plane to Zimbabwe. In Harare, our neighborhood was lined with Jacaranda trees that bent over one another and exploded with purple flowers that rained down a lilac carpet. My parents had to remove their shoes at the door or leave lavender footprints all over the hardwood floors. Over the next few years, we lived in Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Kenya, Bolivia, and Ethiopia. This way of life ended for me when I reached high school and my mother took a hardship post in Bosnia, a country where the sheer volume of leftover landmines meant that dependents were strictly forbidden. Suddenly I was at boarding school in northern Michigan, and America was no longer a far-flung notion.

Growing up, I never felt American. But I was also keenly aware that I would never fully assimilate to the country in which we were presently living, especially when I knew that in only twenty-four months another move was imminent. America was never home, always an idea: an identity I longed to claim but felt totally removed from. As a child, the only significant time I spent in the States was every other summer when we flew back for Home Leave—a requisite vacation meant to reacquaint you with your American roots. As soon as we landed, the first thing I did was load up on teen magazines at the Miami airport. I’d stay up all night reading them like I was cramming for a test, and even took notes in the margins: must see Ten Things I Hate About You; must get a mini backpack. Yet, in spite of my love of YM and Seventeen, there was no better guidebook for the American teenage girl than the Delia’s catalogue.

One didn’t have to live abroad for Delia’s to have made an impact—when the company went bankrupt in 2014, millennial women grieved in droves for the brand that was so much more than a simple clothing retailer. Much of Delia’s success was how it eschewed brick-and-mortar stores in favor of the mail-order catalogue, a device that made the brand ubiquitous and widely accessible. A Delia’s girl didn’t have to live in New York or LA, she just needed a PO Box. American teens everywhere, from Kansas to Rhode Island, or in my case, all the way to the east coast of Africa, felt the same pull. Those wallet chains and square necked tank tops marked our identities as much as any passport.

Delia's presented a unique outlier from the usual American teen archetype. The clothes weren’t designed merely for the cheerleaders or the popular girls; instead Delia's created an identity that was part skater when she hung out at the park, but also a bit femme when school dances rolled around. She was a rebel who would cut class, as well as lead the girl power movement. The Delia's girl was more than Molly Ringwald hoping to get kissed on her sixteenth birthday—she wanted to be school president and be the first in the mosh pit.

Wearing Delia's didn’t just make me feel closer to being American, it also made me feel like I was a real “teenager,” which, in some ways, was the biggest aspiration for my friend group, regardless of our nationalities. In Nairobi, I attended the International School of Kenya, where beneath everyone’s picture in the yearbook was a list of countries from which they held passports. My siblings and I were on the short end with only the US and Ireland. Other students had Switzerland, Nigeria, Croatia, and Brazil. No matter their backgrounds, however, they too longed to hear Biggie’s new album as soon as it was released, the way teens in the states would. Or buy a prom dress, even though that wasn’t a rite of passage in their home country. Our school hallways were littered with girls who could have walked out of a Delia's catalogue, and they proudly displayed their polo crop tops and basketball shorts combo. I remember their XL sweatshirts were so big and boxy they seemed to drip off from their slight frames. It turned out that chief among America’s exports was the teenage dream. No matter where we were from, we all wanted a portal into that specific fantasy because we believed that was the ultimate 13, 15, 17-year-old experience.

Whether it’s a desire to grow up, or lay claim to a nationality through a baby-tee, to be both an adolescent and living in a country that is not your own means a constant feeling of missing out on something. Take Delia's for example: it was never about the clothes, but about passing around the catalogue on the blacktop, at sleepovers, or on the back of the bus. The glossy paper puckered from having been dropped in the bath; the pages with our favorite items dog-eared. Delia's was a kind of instruction manual for everything my TCK friends and I felt existed in that hazy abstraction called America.

Another TCK friend recently reminded me that when our parents finally gave in and bought us the clothes, it would take months for Delia's to receive the order, meaning that when the packages did finally arrive at our APO address, there would inevitably be missing items, which had sold out during the delay. The fact that we rarely actually received any Delia's products simply reinforced this strange nostalgia for a country that most of us had never lived in. In essence, Delia's was just another thing to miss.

It was only when I went to my first year of boarding school in the Midwest that I felt a shift inside me. Delia's was undergoing a shift of their own, a pivot to retail stores that would ultimately hasten the company’s downfall. Right before move-in day, my mom took me to the mall, and there, smack between Claire’s and an Orange Julius, was an actual Delia's. No longer were my fashion dreams relegated to the catalogue circulated by my clique like contraband. Here, right in front of me, were all the clothes I’d coveted, all the inflatable furniture I had fantasized would fill my new room.

As soon as I entered, I was hit hard with a blast of frigid air, a piercing loop of pop music and harsh fluorescent lights. Fingering the dresses on the hangers, I realized how cheap they were, the fabrics already pilling though no one had worn them. The clothes also seemed impossibly small, barely fitting my changing body. I was finally where I had always wanted to be, inside a Delia's, in America. But I was only in a dusty store with music that blared too loud and smelled of pretzels. Upon arriving at my desired destination, all my illusions disappeared. As soon as I could be an actual Delia's girl, I discovered that I’d already outgrown her.

Once back in the States permanently, I felt an itchy restlessness. After high school, I ended up at three different colleges before flying off to London for drama school. To date, the only place I’ve felt comfortable staying more than a year or two has been Brooklyn. The borough had a propensity to change itself fast enough to keep me satisfied. I lived in the same apartment for almost a decade while my neighborhood shifted shape around me. I watched couples move in together and then break up, saw countless restaurants whither and bloom. For the first time I was content to stand still. The frenetic energy of the city soothed me, until it didn’t, and now I’ve found myself on a rainy island off the coast of Massachusetts, hunkered down trying to outwait this pandemic. But as my husband and I consider where to go next, where to live in our “forever home,”as I’ve strangely come to call it, I honestly have no idea where to go. Even after all this time, America still feels like foreign soil.

There was a teenage girl working at the polling station the day I went to cast my ballot, and though I’m not quite sure of her age, she looked to still be in high school. Perhaps this was her first time voting, I thought. Her mask was the nondescript, baby blue hospital sort, and her hair was pulled back in a low ponytail. Her sweatshirt went all the way to her knees, and she wore several pins urging people to get out and vote. On her neck, slyly hidden between her hooded collar and her mask, was a thin velvet choker with a small plastic cameo in the middle. I recognized it immediately, it was the kind Delia's sold by the hundreds back in the 90s, and of which I owned dozens myself. It was more than uncanny seeing this girl, who was dressed so much like a memory from my own youth, but whose mask, and “Vote” stickers were the accoutrements of our current situation.

Hours after I left, I found myself dwelling on the image of this young poll worker. Though she reminded me of myself at her age, there was a stark difference between us. She wasn’t yearning for anything as she took names and pointed people in the right direction. She wasn’t waiting around to become American—she was busy fighting to shape what “American” meant, creating her own idea of citizenship right in front of me.