SLJ's Interview with Serah-Marie McMahon on ‘The Worn Archive’

“The Debut: Serah-Marie McMahon Talks About ‘The Worn Archive’” / School Library Journal / Brigid Alverson / June 3, 2014

Worn is a fashion magazine that takes its subject seriously—not as a series of products to be sold, but as an important part of everyday life. Editor Serah-Marie McMahon founded it in 2007 as an alternative fashion journal, and over the years it has featured articles on topics as varied as the chemistry of dry cleaning, the history of the safety pin, the work of a textile conservator, and a glossary of hijab. Rather than listing what’s hot and what’s not, contributors to Worn view the world through the lens of fashion, with essays on the personal meaning of a particular garment or a favored look, photo shoots of people with an interesting sense of style, and articles about history, art, and design.

The Worn Archive (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014) collects the best of these pieces, grouped according to loose themes such as “Fashion is Personal” and “Fashion is Art.” Most of the entries are only two or three pages long, but they cover a wide range of subjects and styles. SLJTeen talked to McMahon about the genesis of the magazine and the spirit behind it.

I want to start with the name, because “worn” has a double meaning—as a verb, it means carried on the body, as clothes are, and as an adjective it means shabby or used, as in worn-out shoes, or a garment with a history. There’s a connotation of familiarity as well, as in a well-worn, comfortable dress. Do you see these elements as important to Worn?

Of course. Worn is meant to be relatable, accessible. So many fashion magazines play off the idea of superiority. They know better, you would be better too, if only you listen to them. Worn is not like that at all.

Lately, with so much press about the new book, sometimes the name will accidentally appear as The Worn Journal, which I find funny as it always makes me imagine someone walking about in the magazine—a journal that you wear!

One consistent thread that runs through Worn is a fascination with the past—vintage clothes, personal memoir, and articles about the history of an item such as the safety pin or the way a very specific type of fashion, such as flight attendants’ uniforms, reflects societal attitudes. This is the opposite of most fashion magazines, which concentrate very much on the now and on the future. Why did you go in this direction, and what do you find so fascinating about “old-ness” versus the avant-garde?

Well, technically we say we talk about the past, the present, and the future of fashion, but really there is a whole lot more of the former than either of the latter. Fashion’s history is what informs the now and the future of fashion. The Sex Pistols was a band formed by a clothing store owner to sell dresses. Flight attendants’ uniforms have a lot to do with feminism. Old-ness is what makes the avant-garde, and if you understand it, you can understand where the avant-garde is going, and why, and how.

There’s no other fashion magazine like Worn, which means that although it looks very logical now, you were working without a lot of precedents in the field when you were putting it together. What other publications did you look to as models?

I picked up little ideas for Worn from a lot of different places. Just before I started I’d read the book Thrift Score (HarperCollins, 1997) by Al Hoff. It’s a best of a zine she made for years, all about thrift shopping—strategies, histories, personal stores… it had a big impact on the different ways that Worn covers clothing.

Jane was a big deal to me as a teenager and woman in my early 20s. I read and kept every single issue and I’m still very mad at myself for throwing them away when I made a cross-country move. I really loved how all of the people who wrote for the magazine had a clear voice and personality. It made me feel like I was in on a group of friends. They did a lot of first-person, a lot of opinions, a lot of bravery. I wanted Worn to have those aspects too.

This is one of the reasons I was so touched that Jane Pratt (founder of Jane) wrote the introduction to The Worn Archive. At one point we were talking and she said that Worn reminded her of a photo shoot they had done in Jane, and as she started to describe it I cut her off. No only did I know exactly which one she was talking about, I’d had a photo from it pinned to the Worn office wall since the very first day we opened.

You mention in the introduction that the photo shoots used friends and family, not professional models, wearing clothes from your closets or from secondhand stores. In traditional fashion magazines, of course, photo shoots are promotional pieces designed to show off the clothing and entice the reader to buy it. With that intention gone, why did you have photo shoots at all, and what purpose did they serve?

Because clothes are super awesome fun. Design is interesting. Sometimes you can make art with clothes—dressing people in outfits they would never wear in real life but are fascinating to stare at.

But most of all, it’s to encourage people to look outside the construct of the fashion industry as inspiration for getting dressed. Instead of wearing what is dictated by designers and passed down to fast fashion chains, you can get ideas from old pictures of your mother, from a character in a book, from an era or a painting. Fashion can be a way to play with your identity, what you chose to reveal or conceal or alter is up to you and that’s what we wanted to celebrate.

Who are the Wornettes, and what part do they play in the magazine?

The term ‘wornette’ started a few years in, when someone made an offhand comment to me that Worn was like a sorority. The staff not only worked on the publication together but also socialized and supported each other outside of staff meetings. These are the folks that put together the publications—they are not just female, they can identify with any gender or none at all. They are not “interns”; they are everyone from the editor-in-chief to the high school student. Recently, the definition has expanded to include anyone who loves Worn and shares its values. Fandom forever!

The design choices of The Worn Archive are the opposite of most fashion books: The trim size is small, and the pages are matte rather than glossy. What led you in this direction?

We wanted the book to match the current format of the journal, which we redesigned with issue 15. (The book covers issues 1-14.)  The redesign was instigated by a reader survey we did, where people told us they were keeping their copies on their bookshelves, not treating it like a disposable item that magazines often are. They considered Worn to be a beautiful object as well as a content provider. Worn is a little bit like a book/magazine crossbreed, and the design of it further reinforces that idea.

There’s something that we are not seeing in this book: Advertisements. What sort of ads does Worn carry, and what is your philosophy about advertising?

For our magazine editions we do accept advertising, but we cap it at 20% of total pages (most magazines do 50-60% ads). We work with all kinds of designers, makers, organizations, schools, publishers, and promoters. They all have an understanding that they have no influence over what appears in the pages before or after theirs. The ads are never a dominant source of revenue, so that there is no temptation to bow to advertisers’ wishes.

Because Worn is made to be timeless (you can read an issue five years from now and it should be just as relevant) the ads need to be also—they are more about brand awareness then promoting a sale. We don’t accept free products (with the notable exception of books).

What role do libraries play in Worn?

Integral. Many of our articles are heavily researched and all are thoroughly fact-checked, and a lot of that has to do with the Toronto Public Library System. We spend afternoons and weekends and a lot of in-between hours browsing the aisles and pulling from the stacks.

In the introduction, you make the birth of Worn sound very ad hoc: You got interested in the question of fashion, you rounded up a few interesting and talented acquaintances, and voila! It’s almost like guerilla publishing. What advice do you have for readers who might want to start their own magazine?

You don’t need to know what you are doing to start a magazine. You can absolutely just do it. Just work really really hard at it. Go to the library. Read like crazy. Read everything you can get your hands on, and keep track of what you love and what you hate about what you are reading. Figure out what makes you really excited and what feels like you are slugging though. That will help you sort out what you can sustain on passion for a long time. Figure out what’s not being talked about the way you want to talk about it. Go to small press fairs if they exist near you and if they don’t, find the online community that shares your passion. Find other people who think like you do, and get to work! To quote the Beach Boys: “Run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy.” It’s hard work but it’s totally, 100% worth it.

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