“Let’s go to the Mall!”, fictional How I Met Your Mother character, Robin Sparkles, half giggles, half sings. Decked out in an acid-wash denim jacket with a graffitied back and jelly bracelets stacked to her elbows, this “pop star” oozes ‘80s teen nostalgia in the show’s parody music video. This episode aired in 2006, yet the reference was so specific, it’s almost unidentifiable from something that actually could have been a hit song in the ‘80s.
Through the video, Robin bops around in the height of ‘80s fashion (big hair, big bows, big belts), praising the mall, talking about a cute boy she met in the food court, and all the allowance she spent. Though, like any good teen, she also laments about how her parents are lame and won’t let her date and recalls she hasn’t done her homework.
For all of its goofy glory, this comedy music video is a perfect time capsule for the mall rat culture. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the malls were overrun with teens growing up somewhere between the food court and The Gap. More than just shopping, teens turned to the mall to break away from their parents, socialize, earn a little extra cash, date, and express themselves.
Today, we go back in time and give an ode to that mall culture, the backdrop of our teen years, the place that both gave and took all of our money, and where milestones were made.
Why the Mall?
So, how did this commercial paradise attract teens in hoards? Firstly, by design. They were originally modeled off of European town squares, where we could find everything in one place: shopping, food, entertainment, and even more.  Teens saw the value in this immediately. In 1992 Christine Tako, a teen spending her typical Friday evening at her local mall, summed this up to the New York Times, “It’s something to do when there is nothing else to do. And there is never anything else to do.”  Apart from shopping and snacks, malls often hosted other activities like a movie theater, arcades, even skating rinks. When we didn’t know what we wanted to do, the mall gave us options, many of which were free, in a climate-controlled space, and in a place we knew we’d run into people.
Seen and Be Seen
For the first time, perhaps even replacing schools, the mall was the place to be seen. Maybe it was the lack of a dress code or the window displays of cool style, but what teens wore to the mall was a critical component of their experience. Teens felt so strongly about this that magazines started catering to it. Seventeen Magazine published “Real Girls’ Guide to Looking Cute at the Mall,” an article advising teenage girls, “whether you live in Florida or Boston, steal these cute outfit ideas before you hit up the mall.” Seventeen pointed out that “going to the mall isn’t all about shopping—it’s also about showing off your super cute look!”
Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Clueless. Mean Girls. Pretty much anything starring Molly Ringwald. Malls were a critical backdrop for some of the best teen movies. Fast Times’ showed that love comes and goes, but your part-time gig in the mall is there forever. Brittany Murphy dangled to her almost death over a mall railing in Clueless leaving Alicia Silverstone… jealous? Mean Girls paralleled the mall to a watering hole and the youth to “animals in heat”. These scenes are iconic and for those of us who grew up on them, we still remember every word. Was it really even a teen movie if the mall wasn’t a central character?
Today’s would-be-mall rats have now retreated to online for socializing, being seen, and yes, shopping. While we love a good #OutfitOfTheDay snap, we can’t help feeling a bit sad for the teens who are missing out on spending their whole Saturday in the mall, forming a crush over a soft pretzel.
Special thanks to Phoebe McDougal and History Associates Incorporated for their research and efforts.