Through new friends at school, I discovered the American Girl catalog. Selling dolls that represented various eras of American history, American Girl peddled a holistic, educational experience, with books to accompany each character, and a host of accessories including furniture, jewelry, table settings, and even skincare (complete with cleansing powder, towel, and face cloth, $6). The catalog itself felt like a gift, richly illustrated and highly specific. I begged my parents for Samantha Parkington, a wealthy orphan from the turn of the century, who wore a prim checked dress and a gold locket. She was elegant and ambitious and, most importantly, she had the best accouterments. After months of pleading, she was mine.
Though my interest in the doll waned quickly, I devoured the American Girl book series—plot points about Samantha and her decoupage habit, Addy’s conch shell necklace, and Molly’s unkind babysitter are seared into my memory more than two decades later. American Girl sold scores of products, sure, but it also sold snippets of lives which, though often oversimplified and reductive, taught lessons and addressed hardship. With the American Girls, I was learning how to become an American girl.
As I entered my tween years and Samantha was relegated to a lifetime of dust-gathering in the closet, a new catalog took center stage: Delia*s. Clothing had become the way I expressed my developing identity and I relished the opportunity to browse spaghetti strap dresses and blue platform flip flops from the comfort of my room rather than at the mall with my mother (though, it must be noted, she refused to buy me anything from Delia*s.) Using glittery gel roll pens, I’d circle platform loafers and Union Jack muscle tees while reading the inspirational phrases and faux-horoscopes printed at the top of each page with seemingly random (and thus subversive) capitalizations: “eat CAke fOr brEAkfasT,” “blAme oTHers,” “soMeonE is ovErwhelmeD bY Your aNimal maGnetisM.”