Collage by Gabriella Villanueva
When I was growing up in the rural Kansas countryside, I would see teen culture on tv and in movies, and always got SO jealous they had more to do than bop around in the woods. I saw cool teens going to concerts or the pool, the movie theatre or the skate park. Or even to the exciting and foreign concept of a mall. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had been in malls as a kid with my family every so often. The closest one to us was over an hour's drive to Wichita, which really was not bad for people who had to drive 30 miles to get to the closest movie theatre in the next town over. But even after I started driving at age 15 (Kansas, amirite?). Going to the mall with my friends wasn't a common thing for us due to the hassle of just getting there. Even when we did go, it was more of a get in and get out thing than a “lets hang out” thing. Now that I’m 27 and living in a city, I forget that there are multiple(!) malls for me to go to, so this week when I finally broke down and replaced my more-than-worn-in vans, I decided to make an afternoon of it. During my first stop in the food court (obviously) I noticed a teenager wearing Nike shorts, a volleyball t and… faux pearls? Then I looked around, and what everyone was wearing really surprised me.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s the mall was at the core of youth culture. Back when the drinking age was still 18 it was a place for teens to congregate and converse. It was where you saw the latest movies and bought the newest records/CDs. It was where you smoked weed before going to the food court. It was your first job. It was a place where you could explore your identity and dream of who you want to be someday. According to one of my older friends I interviewed, “I would have rather been dead than be caught at the mall with my parents.” In those pre-internet days it was basically where you had to do your shopping, where you saw who was hanging out with who, where they’re shopping and what they’re wearing.
My friend I mentioned earlier said in the 90’s she would wear “vintage bell bottoms, army jackets and really dark lipstick” along with combat boots and lots of studs. On this trip, I wanted to show off my summer wardrobe. I wore a white linen button down, short white and green striped shorts and my bierks. The friend I brought along wore cute shorts with a new shirt and a hat. What I saw everyone else wearing was athleisure. I saw so many teenage boys wearing shorts made of sweat pant material, and girls wearing comfortable shoes with unkempt hair. Only a few of the kids I saw there were dressed with a fashion-forward mindset. I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. I was expecting to see what styles today’s teens are into, and mostly saw comfort-forward looks. My first thought was if they are into fashion at all anymore. Then I realized that was dumb, and I sound like a boomer. Obviously they’re into fashion in one way or another, and I know that from the internet, they just don’t have to rely on the irl to display that.
What is the purpose of going to the mall? 20+ years ago it was to see and be seen. Now, it’s a place to run errands and do some shopping. It is no longer a place where you leisurely spend your time, it’s a place where you go to do a thing, and usually kind of a hassle honestly. Most of the stores are huge chains that haven’t changed much in 10+ years (*cough* Buckle *cough*). The parking always sucks, and it still takes me over 20 minutes to travel to the suburbs to visit them from where I live in the urban part of my city. Also, the stores there are where you can shop online from the comfort of your home, while on the bus, in class/at work or anywhere really.
When you go clothes shopping, what do you wear? My answer is something comfortable and stylish but also easy to slip off in a dressing room. Maybe for “kids these days” the answer is just something easy to change out of. And that’s okay. Thanks to the internet we have access to more unique shops and a more modern focus on locally owned shops and thrift/vintage stores. We also have a different kind of platform to convey our styles and our friends, where we shop and what we’re eating. Because of the internet there is more access to places you can support your community and find more unique pieces. The mall is no longer the beacon of fashion because it doesn't have to be.
I will say though, I had a blast! My friend bought a My Chemical Romance shirt while the moody teenage Hot Topic employee called them a “vintage” band. We waded around the small children in the candy store to steal a few samples and blow our paychecks on sweets. We made friends with sales clerks and refused free samples from underpaid teenage kiosk employees. I saw an old man bring his two young granddaughters to get new stuffed animals. I saw platform sandals and people getting in their exercise for the day. I also saw the coolest Bass Pro Shop hat on another underpaid teen worker in the food court pizza place. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the mall era I witnessed on TV while growing up has ended, and reasonably so, but it is still a fun place to people-watch and spend an afternoon. Every so often.