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Confessions of a Former Fashion Writer: I Knew Nothing About Fashion

December 16, 2015
by Jon Carroll

Here’s how bad it got. The first morning of my first stay in New York, I was hustled down to a press showing of men’s fur coats. It was 1971, and outrageous flamboyance in dress was the coming thing. I was the principal writer for (and later coeditor of) a counterculture fashion magazine called Rags.

I knew nothing about fashion.

It was thought that this show, containing as it did Men (I was a Man; the link was obvious), might be a place to test my wings. I was taken in hand by the two East Coast editors of Rags and introduced to a natty young man in a blue blazer. We were left to discuss fur coats, about which I knew nothing.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t quite catch what she said. What do you have to do with these coats?”

“I designed them,” said Calvin Klein.

What did I know? I was an impoverished editor from the Bay Area. At the time, I wore white flowing Indian shirts, khakis, and scuffed running shoes. I smoked dope and listened to music and hung out. When I thought about fashion at all, I dismissed it as a deeply silly, late-capitalist obsession.

I wanted to be real. I wanted that gritty, real life, the kind that blues musicians sang about—except mostly I was eating homegrown tomatoes and playing the lute. A metaphorical lute. I’ve had many metaphorical hobbies.

But a gig is a gig. I had recently been fired by Rolling Stone and I needed a salary. I was such a bad hippie. So I signed on, writing about fashion from (ahem) an outsider’s perspective. Plus, I edited stories (with too heavy a hand) and wrote captions (good ones).

We had no idea what the readers wanted, so we did whatever occurred to us. The backbone of the magazine was what you might expect: lots about thrift shops and clever needlework and vintage clothing and cooking organically (way ahead of our time) and excellent tattoos (ditto), and horoscopes by a woman named Barbara Birdfeather.

It was the basic assumption of Rags that fashion was now coming up from the streets rather than down from the designers. Way before The New York Times started doing it, we published candid street photos. We believed that everything people wore, everything, was fashion.

So instead of high-end frocks, we did waitress dresses. And not New Age have-a-carrot waitresses, but the middle-aged women who wore uniforms at old-style diners. Or: Ministers and priests of all kinds. Or: Natives of the Amazon rain forest. Or: Rodeo cowboys. Or: Corpses.

The clothes said something about who we were or who we wanted to be. They said something about economics and something about aesthetics. They were inherently interesting. Everything we wore, even everything I wore, was part of the elaborate set of signs and symbols we sent to one another—smart, sexy, cool, mature, grounded, hardworking, hip, black, young … anything. Fashion wasn’t fashionable; it was everywhere.

It was like having my eyes opened rather forcefully, and writing about it while the process was still going on.

We also covered news not handled by others: an attempt by department stores to get employees to wear midi-skirts; an economic downturn that threatened to destroy many marginal boutiques; an examination of the bra industry’s reaction to the sudden braless craze.

These assignments sent me skittering around New York looking at all sorts of exotic things. I had grown up in Southern California reading The New Yorker and biographies of authors who lived in New York. New York was Xanadu and Mecca rolled into one.

It was supposed to be a terrible time in New York: high crime rate; Times Square sleaziness; city near bankruptcy; garbage and potholes and subways that smelled like sewers. But God, I loved it. I loved taking taxis at night. I loved going to parties in lofts and exchanging brittle banter. I loved the fifth-floor walk-ups and the sprawling West Side apartments.

For a while I stayed on Park Avenue. At 65th. So, right?

Rags was an objectively good magazine. I just reread its 13 issues, and there are wonderful stories and photos in there.

(My own stuff strikes me as annoyingly mannered, but I stand by it anyway.) We did good; some of us even worked together again. But candidly, for me it was mostly about the experience.

Today, every morning before I put on my underpants, I look down at the label and say, “Oh yeah, Calvin. I knew him when.”

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