Look at what you're wearing right now. Is it fashion, social history or simply clothing? Your answer - mine would be: a bit of all three - may determine your response to WORN Fashion Journal, a twice-yearly Toronto periodical that would prefer to discuss why we wear what we do than to puzzle over the latest couture collections from Milan or New York. For the editors of WORN, fashion is less a noun describing a remote ideal than a verb that we're conjugating all the time.
"Someone described us as an anti-fashion magazine," says managing editor G. (for Gwendolen) Stegelmann, who would not agree. "We were just unhappy with the prescriptive nature of most fashion magazines. We wanted to inspire people not just to go out and spend money, but to use what's already around them in creative ways."
Case in point: the six-page fashion shoot in the middle of the current issue, which features three models cavorting in a field with a zebra - and nary a single designer credit. If you like the military-style tunics, Persian-rug-patterned coat or towering black leather boots in the photos, you'll just have to hunt around for something similar. You might start at a place like the Pass It On Store, the St. Mary's, Ont. vintage shop that is the only retailer mentioned in the fine print.
"The first two photo shoots were all things from my closet," says Stegelmann, who adds that the magazine isn't averse to couture, including works by Canadian designers. But it won't tie its editorial content to anyone's advertising calendar or accept free outfits in exchange for placement in the magazine.
Even among alternative Canadian fashion mags, which include the likes of Corduroy, Hobo and Plaid, WORN cuts a distinctive profile. Its very readable articles - rare in a publication that can't yet afford to pay contributors - regularly dip into the history of staple items such as corduroy and buttons or the intricacies of a look that few of us, perhaps, would want to emulate. Issue 10 included a detailed illustrated glossary of nine kinds of hijab. The current issue's cover story is about the evolution of air-hostess clothing, from the nurses' uniforms used in the early days of flying to calm nervous passengers to the racier outfits designed in the sixties to the more sober looks brought in as feminism caught up with airlines trying to sell seats with mini-skirts and "Fly Me" buttons. It's social history as seen through changes in style.
"We're like fashion nerds," says Stegelmann, who imagined that the serious, almost scholarly tone of many WORN pieces might endear the magazine to the Canada Council, to which she for applied for a grant. The application was returned unread, on the grounds that fashion has nothing to do with art.
"Nobody would argue that painting isn't an art, but they sell paintings at IKEA," says Serah-Marie McMahon, the magazine's founding "editor-in-pants," who included a piece about a fashion-based art installation in a recent issue.
The idea for WORN began at a vintage store in Toronto's Kensington Market, where Stegelmann and McMahon both worked, sharing their ideas about fashion and what was wrong with most fashion journalism. After McMahon decamped to Montreal to take a fine-arts degree, she decided that the best way to change the discussion was to start her own magazine. By almost every standard, she was underqualified: She had no publishing experience, didn't know what a copy editor does (it took her two issues to find out) and didn't even own a computer. But she had an idea, which she went about realizing and promoting with the persistence of a bulldog: She visited every vintage store in town and talked to the staff ("our natural readership," she says) and posted flyers on university billboards, looking for like-minded contributors.
Eleven issues later, WORN has correspondents in a half-dozen cities, an increasingly polished look (the first art director came on board last year) and distribution in Chapters Indigo. Although it sells about 60 per cent of its print run abroad, it had to pass up a European distribution deal because it couldn't afford to print the minimum 4,000 copies the distributor demanded. WORN's dependence on magazine sales rather than ad revenue, however, turned out to be a blessing when the economy faltered.
"The recession only did good things for us," says McMahon. "People were still willing to pay six dollars for a magazine that a lot of them find they want to hang on to, not throw away."
I know that I'll be holding on to mine. That feature about airline fashions will still be good reading a year or a decade from now. In a field in which most publications wilt quickly, WORN is a hardy perennial.