When I was seventeen around 1993, I was convinced I could snag the title for the Sassiest Girl in America. According to the editor Jane Pratt, the winner would appear on the cover of Sassy magazine, and her “intelligence, wit, social responsibility, creativity and general sassiness” would also be awarded with “cash, fashions and jewelry”.
I had a friend take pictures of me with my Pentax K1000 lounging atop my 1975 Plymouth Volare wearing some of my dad’s old Levi’s 517’s dyed puke yellow, raver platforms and my hair slicked back in a semi-pompadour. I fashioned a handmade book of collages made out of fake-fur, nestled it into a Tide Box lined with astro-turf, along with a hand-typed letter explaining that my favorite pastime was watching people. I sent it off amidst much anticipation and encouragement from everyone I knew—to no response whatsoever.
I recall the actual finalists that year being, from my perspective, rather lame, but no matter. Sassy was enormously important to me back then, as it was to so many others. It’s no secret that it was seminal for all of us misfit girls in the early 90s who in an even less hospitable era might have ended up like Sylvia Plath. It made us feel like we weren’t alone. An n+1 review of the 2007 book How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time described me to a squirmingly accurate tee:
“If you subscribed to or even occasionally read Sassy, the teen-girl magazine that existed from 1989 to 1996, [you] grew up on R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, Hole, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, “My So-Called Life”, and John Hughes. Your romantic ideals were forged by repeated viewings of “Dead Poets Society”, “Say Anything”, and Morrissey riding around on a tractor in the middle of winter for the “Suedehead” video. You published a zine or bought zines, issued seven-inch singles or bought seven-inch singles. You were probably a high-achieving malcontent, a wearer of black in high school who became a thrift-store-haunting feminist theorist in college.”
These days, googling around, to find out more about what became of Sassy, I came across an erudite, 90s-obsessed, Joan-Didion-quoting fifteen-year-old fashion blogger—the “wunderkind” Tavi Gevinson (otherwise known as the Style Rookie). Photographing herself in brainy getups that reference everything from Stevie Nicks to Hitchcock babes to “Twin Peaks”, the celebrated Tavi also encyclopedically documents all of Rayanne Graff’s outfits (from “My So-Called Life”), scrutinizes John Waters flicks, idolizes Courteney Love and the riot grrrls, and–in a moment—had the thought to revive Sassy magazine.
It seems Jane Pratt wasn’t up for it and now there’s simply an online “Rookie Mag” (which frankly seems a bit gnawed-raw by its own advertising potential), but it got me to thinking about young fashion.
Teenage girls of this yet-nameless decade, much like those of its predecessor, are a distant country to me. I confess I know none, and the ephemerality of the media that accompanies their upbringing perplexes me. I posted pictures from magazines on my wall, indeed, but they were made of paper. I had my own phone line, but it plugged into the wall with a cable. And I was a fashion auteur in my own mind, but since I was never a model and Sassy gave me the cold shoulder, I was never able to share my style with thousands of people.
I imagine (naively, it turns out) that the young women of today—especially those talented and misunderstood ones like Tavi—find the kindred lost souls rather quickly. And if they believe they are special and visionary, they start their own version of what we crotchety Gen-Xers called zines, except with an entry level circulation of like, the whole world. Potential for connections is infinitely horizontal, there’s no tree-root logic, there are no longer fashion editors or modeling agencies—or even money—guarding the gate to being a fashion icon.
So, I set out last week to take a look online at what’s up with these girls. Surely there was a world out there on the internets of Tavi Gevinsons, of armies of tiny fledgling i-D magazines staffed by a spangle of wildly creative and obscure teensomethings in the yawn between the Far East and South America.
I looked, but I didn’t get far, because I started to feel like throwing up my lunch. Like, in a bulimic way.
One of the first—and last—things I examined for this project was Lookbook.nu. Calling itself the “collective fashion consciousness”, in principle it seemed like a great idea. You take pictures of yourself and your “look” and post it for others to check out and “hype”. You don’t get paid or anything, but you can promote whatever it is you’re selling—your vintage finds, your blog, your work, yourself.
This was where the bulimic nausea started to creep in. Flipping from unimaginative pouting photo to unimaginative pouting photo, it occurred to me that these girls were twisting themselves into all these pre-codified poses to appear as much like commodities as possible. Check out for example the look of this sixteen-year-old Swedish “student and blogger”, entitled (gulp) “FEATHERLIKE LIGHTNESS”. Could she have Photoshopped out an entire third of her inner thighs? One brave person said something in the comments about this girl’s frightening dimensions, but otherwise her look was considered “awesome”, “brilliant”, “beautiful”, “gorgeous” and a personal favorite, “sooooo vintage” by the Lookbook audience.
I started to click around Lookbook, maybe Miss Feather Lightness was a fluke. But sadly it seemed that, if Lookbook.nu was any indication, the “democratic” teen fashion voice of our time is crowd-sourced from zombie-lipped platform-heeled quasi-anorexic sixteen- to twenty-two-year-old “stylist” and “blogger” automa-glamazons from Sweden, the Philippines and Bumbleshuck, USA. They appear to have little or no inkling that they are offering up their diminished bodies and zombified style-souls as free advertising for corporations.
The “contributors” list the origin of their clothing and, more often than not, it is garments from H&M, Top Shop, Zara, or the like, mixed in with their personalized “vintage” accents. Vintage, I see, has become the catch-all for “personal style”, a lubricant for the purchase of new brand-name items so one does not feel like total drone after buying and donning sweatshop-produced cookie-cutter silhouettes.
Fashion shown on the backs of young women is certainly the fastest strategy for getting into a teenage girls’ pocket, or, for that matter, anyone else’s. The Lookbook girls, whose remuneration for being stylists, models and online-marketers is infinitely immaterial, appear to be simultaneously a corporealization of the commodity fetish while at the same time at the height of post-Fordist labor. That is, 1) they are the product themselves while performing the service of producing, yet 2) if we consider this service to be their offering up of their style-soul, and this service is considered labor, they are a good example of what Paolo Virno called “servile virtuosity”. The humanity (as vague as it may be) that these girls mobilize in putting together an outfit and publishing it is co-opted as surplus value by the ogres, and in return, their humanity is drained like so many carbs and trans-fats.
The redhead Feather girl continues to haunt me. Like a specter. Or perhaps like a zombie. When I think of her disintegrating body appearing in the digital ether, I resort (certainly too literally) to the Deleuzian idea of the “body without organs” or BwO. An anthropomorphic shape, a plane upon which desires can move in any direction, an intensity, “matter that occupies space to a given degree—to the degree corresponding to intensities produced. It is nonstratified, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity, intensity=0” (A Thousand Plateaus, p 169)… she is not exactly human, but rather a field across which other things move.
Tavi seems to be an exception to this ghostly phenomenon among the young damsels of the digital, and her fierce sense of agency appears to keep her whole amidst a certain onslaught of toothy barracudas. She is a different kind of BwO, she is a plane of consistency that is free of hierarchy, a true multiplicity.
I confess I’m a bit jealous of her; perhaps if the sixteen-year-old me was transported to now, I would be front row at Paris fashion week and meeting Yohji Yamamoto instead of taunted by jocks at the back of the cafeteria for wearing “clothes from the dumpster” (to paraphrase my old English teacher). On the other hand, in my early days I was spared the zombie/vampire invasion … that is, soulless bodies trying to possess you and bring you into their ranks, or bloodsuckers trying to drain your essence. Sure, I was miserable back then, but at least I was me. In some ways it’s not surprising that Tavi can’t get her head out of the 90s, the riot grrrls and Sassy. That decade was a first and last haven and platform for a young woman’s wild creativity before the internet, Lookbook.nu and—yes—the zombie apocalypse.
--Mara Goldwyn is an artist writer based in Berlin. She has a blog called Fashion Trashology and shares some of her work at http://maragoldwyn.com.
(Images: Mara Goldwyn circa 1993; Mara's room circa 1993, photos courtesy Mara Goldwyn; Ebba Z. on Lookbook.nu.)