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An Ode to the Business Casual Mannequins I Loved as a Teen

And why I wish we still dressed up for work.

A woman in a button-down shirt and blazer standing in the street while holding a cell phone. Photo: Getty Images

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Dressing up for work has been steadily going out of style for the past 20 years or so, and I am possibly the only young person on the planet who is lamenting its slow death.

At 18, I was dressing more like a grown-up than I do at 25. This is because I, like most people who buy clothes, did the majority of my shopping at the local mall. What do malls have? Auntie Anne’s, at least three of the four major Teen Stores, and places for people who need clothes for work. So by the end of high school, when my ill-advised obsessions with Abercrombie and Hollister had finally run their course (bless you, mom, for putting up with those), and I was ready to buy shirts that were not skintight six-inches-too-long polos, I was left with the stores that a sensible-yet-trendy professional woman would turn to for her essential office attire. And reader, I was not mad about it.

I used to ooh at the pencil skirts at Loft and ahh at the ruffle-embellished blouses at Express (that I no doubt paired with teeny, tiny denim shorts from Pacsun). But even then, with all that sweet, sweet part-time dance teacher money and just about zero expenses, I didn’t let myself go all in: I knew I couldn’t wear a lot of this stuff in my everyday teenage life. But I would linger near H&M’s business casual mannequins, picking up a form-fitted button-down here and a cropped blazer there, imagining the kind of high-profile job I’d wear outfits like that to one day.

For me, getting to go to the mall by myself was the ultimate rite of passage — a huge step up from hanging out at the Mexican restaurant near my dance studio or getting dropped off and promptly picked up at the movies. At the mall, you could really visualize your future, non-teen self. A self that was unknown to the lame-os at your high school, a self that had moved on to bigger and better things, a self that was still a secret even to you. But among those office-ready ensembles, you could see that secret self a little bit more clearly.

While this mall-brand office wear look isn’t exactly Sofia Vergara plunge dress S-E-X-Y, back then, to me, it was the embodiment of having ~made it~ and that was very sexy. And now it’s going away.

I know this shift to casualdom isn’t the same across the board in every field, but both media brands I’ve worked for have sponsored barely-there dress codes — as in, show up and you’re pretty much good. Most days I’m wearing jeans with some kind of top from Madewell, and I generally look like a college student, albeit the least hungover one in the class.

Even companies like J.P. Morgan that were once staunchly suits-only now allow shorter hemlines and open-toed shoes to infiltrate their ranks. Apparently, this is the fault of millennials wanting cool perks at work. To this, I say: Jeans are definitely not as cool as nap rooms or really good snacks, kids! #Ask4More. Plus, studies show that dressing up for work might actually help you be better at work, which is why a lot of experts say you should get out of your baggy sweats even if you work from home.

Yes, I’ll admit it’s nice not have to invest a lot of money in a work wardrobe that you would never wear outside the office, or that maybe you lowkey hate. And yes, it’s neat to be able to wear clothes to work that are really you. But maybe we could start doing Formal Fridays or something? You know, for the ambitious teen in all of us.