The Mall as Muse

We spent our formative years at the mall. What we experienced there continues to inform our style.

The modern mall experience was born in the Midwest nearly a century ago. The Country Club Plaza opened in Kansas City in 1923 as the first shopping center easily accessible by automobile. Inspired by the architecture of Seville, Spain, the outdoor development featured statues, mosaics, and fountains that transported visitors to a European destination. It was an immediate hit. Fast forward to 1956 and the opening of Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota. The enclosed retail center was “America’s first indoor regional shopping mall” and it served as the template for the late 20th century mall. According to Business Insider, the mall’s design was inspired by yet another European city:

“The mall’s architect, Victor Gruen, designed the building to mimic Vienna’s outdoor squares, with plants hanging from the balconies and plenty of space for people to mingle. In the atrium, there was a fish pond, large faux trees, and a 21-foot cage filled with birds.”

Southdale’s blueprint — large atrium, anchor department stores, “outdoor” indoor dining, and plenty of parking — was replicated across the country. Going to the mall was an experience — a suburban town square filled with the latest fashion, the newest food fads, and endless people watching. 

The Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri. Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. 2009.

For Midwestern Gen Xers like us, the American shopping mall was the fashion incubator that shaped our style. Far away from the designer boutiques of the coasts, we budding fashionistas honed our skills at chain stores that — much like the Country Club Plaza and Southdale Center — transported us to another place and time. We could plan our safari at Banana Republic, jet off to Paris at Express (or Limited Express as it used to be known), channel our inner art gallery owner at Esprit, or adopt an Italian sensibility at Benetton. The mall was more than a place to buy clothes, it was a revelatory experience.

Our childhood malls have changed a lot since the 1980s (shout out to West Ridge and East Towne). While the brands we loved are still in business, they no longer resemble the glory days of their 1980s incarnations. Online shopping and big box retail have replaced the mall shopping experience. The good news? The brands and fashions we loved at the mall are available at vintage clothing shops and can be found in thrift stores. More good news? The pieces are so well made and, we think, timeless that they can be incorporated into your modern day wardrobe. And no, you won’t look like a 1980s cosplayer — unless you really want to. In that case, you do you!

We’re taking a trip down the mall memory lane beginning with Banana Republic. Join us and  channel your mall muse.

Banana Republic Safari and Travel Clothing

Banana Republic Safari and Travel Clothing Company Store. Via Pinterest.

Mel and Patricia Ziegler opened Banana Republic Safari and Travel Clothing Company in Mill Valley, California, in 1978. In 1983, they sold the store to Donald Fisher of The Gap, launching a widespread presence in American malls. For an in-depth history of Banana Republic and some drool-worthy catalog images (and the in-store music playlist!), visit the Abandoned Republic website. The safari history of Banana Republic may come as a surprise to those who only know of BR as a place to buy business casual workwear, but for most of the 1980s, the safari look ruled. Walking into a Banana Republic Safari and Travel Clothing Company store was to be whisked away to a safari outpost by way of Ralph Lauren and Disney’s Jungle Cruise. A perfectly curated shopping experience, “Banana” featured shipping crate displays, props from cameras to actual jeeps and planes, and pieces of straw embedded in the floor. Banana Republic t-shirts found their way onto the bodies of many suburban teenages, an affordable souvenir from an otherwise pricey store. The real stars were the army surplus-inspired clothing, cut and tailored for modern men and women. The Leather Walking Skirt, Flightsuits, and the Traveling Boot are just a few timeless and inspiring examples. 

Escapism is at the heart of 1980s Banana Republic’s appeal. This particular form of escapism dominated the pop culture climate of the 1980s. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1981 and Indy’s archaeologist outfit (fedora, worn leather jacket, khaki pants) was instantly iconic. Out of Africa won the Academy Award in 1986 and Meryl Streep’s wardrobe of linens, lace, and khaki “fueled a trend.” Princess Diana’s style fed the craze, along with Duran Duran videos. The list goes on. Banana Republic fit right in, styling upwardly mobile mall goers as dashing adventurers. 

This escapist style has lasting allure.  “The Banana Republic Comeback Has Begun,” according to GQ. BR Vintage has launched at Banana Republic, a reissue of classic pieces from the 1980s and 1990s. The majority of pieces are sold out, but never fear — vintage to the rescue!

Vintage Banana Republic can be found at vintage sellers online, including our shop along with some pieces from Outback Red, a Banana Republic-esque line from The Limited that has the same look and feel. The pieces are classic enough to be incorporated into your modern wardrobe without feeling costumey. Wear a ruffle blouse with a pair of Banana Republic chinos, throw on the Leather Walking Skirt with a tee, or put on a cropped blouse with the Lido shorts. Here are some of our favorite combos:

Playing with Textures: Banana Republic Safari and Travel Clothing Co. Chinos (from Tracy’s collection) paired with Zimmerman Blouse, Gucci Belt, Christian Louboutin Pumps, Bottega Veneta Tote.
Summer Breeze: Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing Co. shorts, black silk tank, and vintage belt from Tracy’s closet paired with: World Market Panama Hat, The Row Shoulder Bag, and Porte and Paire Slides.

Safari, Utility, or …Colonial?

For all the swashbuckling style and glamour, there is a huge elephant in the room — and we are not talking about a Banana Republic store prop. Globalization was picking up and manufacturing was moving offshore in the 1980s, and safari-inspired clothing, whether intentional or not, represented this second wave of colonialism. Now commonly known as “utility” clothing, the roots of “adventure wear” are rooted in British and American colonialism. Take, for example, the description of the pith helmet sold by Banana Republic:

“From Her Majesty’s former burden, the colony of India, comes our genuine Bombay Bowler. Water repellent khaki cotton covers the pith. Positively sunproof. For extra protection on particularly scorching days, we suggest dunking the hat occasionally in cool water.” 

The full colonial look, it should be said, is controversial. In 2018, Melania Trump faced backlash over the “safari chic and colonialist” clothing she wore on a visit to Africa. Donning khaki, linens, and a pith helmet, she looked like she stepped out of the early 20th century. Many of the criticisms leveled at the former First Lady could have also applied to early Banana Republic (see previous pith helmet description for evidence). 

Ana Andjelic, chief brand officer at Banana Republic and the force behind BR Vintage, addressed the subject with Rachel Tashjian in GQ: “They [the Zieglers]  weren’t colonialists. It’s not about an actual safari. It’s about a spirit of adventure, and a spirit of imagined territories,” she explained. There’s a sense of whimsy to the clothes, “in the sense that you dress up almost in a costume.”

Costumes aside, head-to-toe safari cosplay is understood today as the ultimate flex of privilege. Could a store like Banana Republic Safari and Travel Clothing Company exist in 2021? Should it? “Safari” as a descriptive has been replaced by the more inclusive “utility, but that does not erase the damage wrought by centuries of colonialism. As with a lot of vintage, there are more ethical questions than answers. Can we, with the perspective and knowledge we have, rewrite the narrative for this beloved brand? The role of counter cultures movements is to reclaim formerly oppressive symbols, specifically army surplus and military wear. See: the Black Panthers and Punk Rock. We can do it again. 

Then again, maybe we already have been? We leave you with the tongue-in-cheek colonial aesthetic of Haircut 100’s “Love Plus One” video. Until next time!

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Cool Kid Fashion Club: Esprit to Rachel Comey | aux etoiles vintage

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