I recently turned twenty, so I’ve been spending a lot of time (some may say too much) ruminating on adolescence. As a child, I was fascinated by representations of the cool adolescent girl. The day I picked up a copy of the Just Nikki catalogue at Claire’s Accessories in the Willow Grove mall with my mother and grandmother will be forever seared in my consciousness. Each page was filled with carefree teenage girls wearing space dye sweaters and cargo pants. I was hooked.
Every time Just Nikki came in the mail, I’d excitedly flip through it over and over and think about how cool those girls seemed. They seemed so far removed from me, but at the same time, I thought I would magically morph into one of these cheerful beacons of late 90s fashion as soon as I possessed the all-important “-teen” suffix. Just Nikki inspired me to make my first collage- a big piece of white board on which smiling girls in crop tops appear as though in suspended animation.
I still make collages, and I’m still fascinated by this girlish imagery. I remember the girls in Just Nikki often had exposed bra straps, so I started adding visible straps to my drawings of girls. I can’t write about the formulation of my teenage ideal without talking about exposed bra straps and Just Nikki. To grade school me, they signified a whole different world - one of carefree sophistication and self-possession.
All of this inevitably leads to Rayanne, the earlier-nineties, more obviously “bad” version of the Just Nikki American teen dream girl. Much has been said about Rayanne’s fabulously 90s, mismatched fashion choices, but the strong attachment My So-Called Life fans feel to her goes beyond the aesthetic. Tellingly, Rayanne often embraces (even at school!) the look of an unbuttoned plaid shirt tossed carelessly over an exposed bra. The intangible, yet instantly recognizable aura of the cool girl manifests itself in this attitude. The teen catalogs that were so important to my youth sanitized this look, compacting it into something safe and accessible. Unlike the Just Nikki girls, Rayanne wasn’t meant to be idealized, and we both loved and hated her for that. On the one hand, her casually exposed bras and ripped jeans were an aesthetic reminder of the undone artiness so many high school girls yearn for. On the other, Rayanne had her own share of drama. An absent father, substance abuse, mean girl moments which hurt because they are such a real part of every girl’s life - all of these things added depth to our beloved saint of pre-Just Nikki coolness.
One of the most poignant things about Rayanne was her relationship with her mother. Amber, a lively, hippieish woman who fills her home with beaded curtains and tarot cards, is, appropriately, played by noted cool girl Patti D’Arbanville. Rayanne’s relationship with her mom is surprisingly nuanced, considering it exists within the confines of a TV drama. From the way she affectionately refers to her daughter as “Rayni,” to her dinners made of appetizers and desserts, Amber is every inch the perfectly lovable and eccentric mother.
Thinking of Rayanne in comparison to Just Nikki, I can’t help but wonder about the interior lives of these girls of the printed page. Did the cheerful blonde in baggy pants and an off the shoulder striped shirt have a fun hippie mom, like Rayanne did? Or did she live the more typical, protected suburban existence, which a wayward gal like Angela longed to get away from? In her moody interior monologues (which sound alarmingly like mine, and those of so many other teen girls, I’m sure) Angela would endlessly ponder the thoughts of others. When we think about Angela’s musings, we come to understand the appeal of Rayanne and her sunny late 90s counterparts. As we watch Rayanne, we wonder about her. Whether we question how she decided to unbutton a certain number of buttons or wear a specific kooky accessory with a certain outfit, or go deeper, pondering her family life and emotional makeup, she possesses an undeniable mystique.
So too do the Just Nikki girls. Their intangible late-90s cool is forever preserved in the fragments of my collage. I look at the collage now, over half my life later, and I still yearn to be that carefree, fun-loving girl, though all the while, I lose myself in wondering about their interior lives. When I looked at the Just Nikki catalog as a girl, I was a baby Angela, forming early definitions which would come to shape me forever. Fittingly, the girls I idolized were Rayannes - cool and carefree, but at the same time filled with mystery.
Abbey Bender blogs at abbeyeliza.blogspot.com. She lives in New York and has sizeable collections of hosiery and 70s magazines (mostly Seventeen and Glamour). She studies Literature and Cinema Studies and is disappointed by the general lack of Just Nikki pictures on the internet.