In 1992, Richmond Hill, Ont. was not the cosmopolitan Toronto suburb it is today. If you were in high school, you hung out in the basement and bummed rides to the mall, where you shopped at Suzy Shier.
There was one bright spot, though. Once a month, you could walk to Shoppers Drug Mart to see if Sassy had arrived. The magazine, edited by Jane Pratt while she was still in her 20s, was a lifeline holding the promise of a better existence ahead – as well as a guide to surviving your current one. On its pages, a group of older, much cooler girls imparted such wisdom as how to cut out the crotch and feet from a pair of pantyhose and wear the results as a top; they also debated whether you needed armpit hair to be a feminist and seemed to be on a first-name basis with musicians such as Courtney Love and Kim Gordon – whoever they were.
A cover story on Juliana Hatfield from September, 1992 perfectly illustrates the aesthetic of the magazine, if not the era itself. Hatfield's famous guitar is raised across her body; she wears leggings, John Fluevogs and what appears to be a cardigan. Makeup, if there is any, is minimal, irrelevant. To girls like me everywhere, such iconography represented more than just big-city life; it also suggested a world in which girls could be as politicized as adults and a desire to subvert the conventions of femininity as defined by publications such as Cosmopolitan.
That's why it was a surprise – even knowing the cyclical nature of fashion – to see designers go grunge this year. (The look, big for spring, is likely to stick around. At the recent fall shows in Paris, Hedi Slimane's collection for Saint Laurent showed babydolls with biker boots. In Toronto, Chloé Comme Parris paraded plaid shirts tied around the waists of slip dresses down the runway to Nirvana's All Apologies.) In the heady early days of the riot grrrl era, clunky shoes, flannel shirts and messy hair were an exhilarating antidote to the big-haired-supermodel ideal of the mainstream. But flattering?
"It's a look that's very easy to wear," offers Marisa Meltzer, one of the co-authors of the 2006 book How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time. "Flannels, leggings, jeans that weren't too tight: You could find them in any store. It wasn't a designer look."
Now as then, Meltzer adds, "there's something about it that feels authentic," even if it's designers who are exhuming the aesthetic.
As distinctive as the grunge uniform may be, however, Sassy was always about more than just clothes. The same, happily, is true of its 21st-century offspring, Rookie, the online magazine that fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson launched for teen girls in 2011 when she was 15 (and which, not coincidentally, lists Pratt as a "guardian angel" on its masthead). Rookie pays homage to the music and eyeliner of the nineties, but, more importantly, reflects its aims through its political articles and new paeans to girl power. (One recent piece was titled The Body Says Whoa: You Don't Have To Have Sex To Be Sexual.) Of course, it has less to say to original Sassy fans, now older and (hopefully) wiser.
That's where Jane Pratt comes in – again.
xoJane.com, Pratt's online magazine, might seem like the perfect synthesis of the past and present. Every week, it delivers her signature blend of first-person confessional, political treatise and wild-card feature such as Jane's Phone, which reproduces photos and texts from Pratt's personal life. "It's exactly the same," she says of the relationship between xoJane's 1.5 million monthly readers and the girls who wrote heartfelt letters to Sassy. What differs, obviously, is the content: Enabled by the Internet, innocent stories about kissing have been replaced by vibrator tests and STD confessions. Pratt, though, feels the magazine has matured in other, more significant ways.
Where Sassy once delighted in "tearing down" self-satisfied celebrities and plastic women, xoJane strives to be inclusive. "I feel like that's done everywhere now," she says. "I'm not interested." Indeed – and unlike the Sassy of yore – xoJane is less a suggestion that readers are in some kind of club and more a celebration of female differences. (A writer who contracted three STDs, for instance, shares space with the author of It Happened to Me: I'm Married to a Virgin.)
The promotion of individuality and acceptance may in fact be Sassy's greatest legacy, even as its descendants expand the original envelope. "A Sassy of today would have to delve beyond … subversive music and fashion and movies. It would have to [show] subversive thinking," Gevinson said at a TED talk in Toronto, suggesting that, for women of all ages, the challenge is to find an authentic self in a highly consumerist culture.
Which brings me back to the mall. When I saw that Dr. Martens had come out with a new boot collection featuring floral prints and candy colours not long ago, I was excited, imagining that I could reappropriate icons of my university days in peppier form. (It didn't work – they just made me look like I was trying too hard.)
I Want – I Got blogger Anita Clarke, meanwhile, had a more soulful take. "Through all the different styles I went through in high school and university, Docs were a constant," she recalls, her reaction to the new versions having more to do with nostalgia than trendiness. "It's that weird excitement for something that has no baggage," she continues. "It's just worn from the heart."