Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Prom Night for WORN

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Prom Night for WORN

In England, we don’t go to prom. We do, however, watch movies, so we know exactly how it goes: find extravagant dress/rent later-to-be-regretted tux, secure date (very important!) with most popular person on the football team/cheerleading squad, rely on kooky joker friend to smuggle liquor into the punch, have epiphany about superficiality of teen popularity and value of true friendship, fall in love with George McFly. Maybe that last one came from a different movie.

But on a recent Saturday night, mumble-mumble years after I graduated high school, my prom night finally arrived. My second-hand prom night, to be precise. And so, as the clock struck 10ish, Cinderella maneuvered her poufy 1950s petticoat into the back of a waiting Beck taxi (pumpkin coloured!) and asked the driver to convey her to the second-hand ball.

The occasion was the launch of The WORN Archive, a new book that collects the best of the first seven years of WORN Fashion Journal, which, for those of you unfamiliar, is a ground-breaking bi-annual publication for people who care about clothes but are turned off by having to flip past 100 pages of perfume ads to find a single thoughtful article about fashion. Think The Believer for your closet.

When the prom partiers arrived, Adelaide Hall was decked out like a high school gym but minus the sweaty teenager smell: crepe streamers, bright-coloured balloons, gold stars. DJ Teddy the K, husband of The WORN Archive editor Serah-Marie McMahon, kept the dance floor full and the old-timey tunes spinning all night.

Everyone looked gorgeous and nobody looked the same as anybody else. Throughout the room, conversations between strangers unfolded in rounds of “Your dress is stunning!” “Thanks! Yours too!” “I love your polka dots!” “Did you make that yourself?!”

Eye make-up of the night went to the girl in the homemade-for-her-actual-prom Jeff Koons disco-ball headdress (headdress of the night went to her too, obviously). Home-made dress of the night went to the chick in the fitted knee-length frock made of duct tape and worn with a white crinoline under the skirt and a pair of black Doc Marten’s south of the ankles.

After the tunes had stopped playing and the cute couples had shuffled their way off the dance floor, I talked to WORN Editor-in-Pants Serah-Marie McMahon (who, full disclosure, is also a friend and Type Books colleague) about WORN’s journey from magazine to book, not asking to be shown the money, and why grown-ups don’t dress up as much as they should.

Becky Toyne: How did you choose the title?

Serah-Marie McMahon: Well it was a really close running between The WORN Collection and The WORN Archive. A "collection" is pretty cute because designers have collections of clothes, but I liked "archive" because it really implied things we’ve done and what we’ve kept. It feels like a library, which was sort of the idea I wanted WORN to have too.

BT: How did the idea for the book come about? Were you approached to do it or did you pitch it to Drawn & Quarterly?

SMM: We pitched it. When we redesigned the magazine we did a huge survey and asked the readers what they wanted, and one of the biggest responses we got is that people want to keep WORN; they wanted a spine [that would look nice on a shelf], and for us to make it more durable and something they would keep and collect. We switched the format after that [from a $6 saddle stitched magazine to a $12 mini-book with a hard spine], and then we had all these new readers and they all wanted old issues, but lots of them were sold out. So we really felt like it would be good if we collected all the old ones to match the new ones and then people could keep it on their shelf as something more durable. Then when the Rookie book came out with Tavi Gevinson [also published by D&Q], we said, "we’ve got to talk to Drawn & Quarterly now."

BT: How did you curate the seven years’ worth of stuff that went in?

SMM: It was crazy. We catalogued everything. We wrote everything down, and then I basically spent three full days doing nothing else but figuring it out. And what started to emerge was that there were themes of kinds of articles that we’d written over the years that at the same time were about what we were trying to do at WORN — to talk about how fashion is all these different things besides just a consumer object. So I sort of looked at it as evidence, and I picked a theme, say "Fashion is Personal," and then we picked the articles that really supported that theme: Which articles are the best evidence to support our theory that fashion is personal?

BT: New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham said, “If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.” How does that philosophy inform the editorial vision of WORN?

SMM: When I saw that documentary [Bill Cunningham New York] I almost cheered out loud. I actually got the idea for WORN after I read a book about Sassy magazine. It’s called How Sassy Changed My Life by Marisa Meltzer. Sassy was a huge influence on me as a teenager, and Jane too, but they were obviously, in the traditional magazine model, very reliant on advertising to exist. They’d write articles about blow jobs, and then consumers would boycott advertisers to get them to pull their revenue. And they lost so much money they ended up selling the magazine and it eventually closed. I knew I didn’t want that to happen. And it’s funny — so many magazines are turning this way now, where they’re longer or they charge more, they look better and you’re meant to keep them.

But also, we don’t make a lot of money. WORN’s just a bunch of people who love to do it, so we can pretty much say what we want.

BT: Why did you decide to have a second-hand prom for the launch party?

SMM (beaming): Well this is our second second-hand prom. There used to be fake prom in Toronto and everybody loved that and then it ended and we thought, "We should do prom!"

The reason we call it "second-hand prom" is to give people an idea that they can wear whatever they want; they don’t have to go out and buy brand-new fancy clothes. They can wear something they bought at the thrift store and that will be super great. Prom without all the expense that goes with prom. But also, there’s so few opportunities for grown-ups to get super dressed up. Even weddings are so casual now for the most part. There’s galas and stuff but the vast majority of people don’t get to go to that, but anybody can come to this and have a chance to really dress up and dance to some oldies music, and I feel like people did that.

BT: That was going to be my next question: People do really love to dress up. Why don’t we just dress up more?

SMM: I don’t know! I always wear dresses, but I tend to wear day dresses more than fancy, fancy dresses. I think it’s just convenience, people don’t want to spend … and you know that’s fine too, I have no problem with it, I just like that there’s a mix. And that’s the thing that’s really great about WORN: you can have some guy who’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt and then a girl in a jewel-encrusted poufy dress with a big head thing on and they can stand next to each other and both be at the same party and it’s OK. There’s no rules, that’s the thing. It’s not like, "you have to be like this otherwise you’re excluded."

BT: I’ve noticed it at “black-tie” galas too. You used to have to dress up for them, but now, some women put their hair up and wear a gown, while others wear a nice dress to the office and come straight from work. Some men wear a tux, others throw on a tie with their sports jacket. I lament the loss of the glamour.

SMM: But as much as I love it when everyone’s in on it, there’s a level of exclusivity with that, you know? Big fancy dresses are really expensive and you’re not supposed to wear it again. So that’s the great thing about second-hand prom: there is no exclusivity. You can wear something you bought at the thrift store that cost $20. I’m glad the taboo of wearing second-hand clothes is done. It’s been done for a while but now really no one cares.”

[This conversation has been edited and condensed.]

Photos by Becca Lemire.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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