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Rags Magazine Cover, Issue 11 1971
Rags Magazine Cover, Issue 11 1971

How Rags magazine shaped 70s counterculture

Founded as ‘the Rolling Stone of fashion’ in the legendary magazine’s ex-offices, Rags was the anti-establishment title that challenged the style status quo

From raging against the fashion fascism of office dress codes to pioneering street style, Rags was the short-lived anti-establishment magazine that defined the countercultural spirit of the early 70s. Dubbed the Rolling Stone of fashion, the San Francisco-based title was published by the music magazine’s legendary photographer Baron Wolman, along with editors Mary Peacock and Daphne Davis, and took aim at the mainstream industry to promote fashion that was inherently DIY. In London to discuss his latest book Groupies, a celebration of the best dressed women in rock’n’roll, Wolman sat down to discuss the magazine that lasted only 13 issues, but carved out a lasting name for itself in subcultural history.

What did you take from Rolling Stone to Rags?

Baron Wolman: Well, I learned about how to publish. So when these women came to me, one from Harpers Bazaar and one from Vogue, and asked for my advice about starting a magazine and told me their idea for Rags, I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’m getting tired at Rolling Stone, I’ll do it with you. All the people I know and all the technology that I’ve learned about how to publish, we’ll just transfer over to Rags.’ Rolling Stone had just moved out of their original offices, and so we moved in – off we went, just like that.

So what did they say when they came to you and said, ‘We have this idea?’

Baron Wolman: They said, ‘Look, as far as we’re concerned the fashion magazines of today are irrelevant, because the real fashion is coming from the streets. And we want to do a publication like Rolling Stone that gets to the bottom, to the origin of fashion. Fashion’s in the street and that’s what we’re going to concentrate on.’ So that’s what we did.

How was the magazine actually produced?

Baron Wolman: They were newsprint just like Rolling Stone, done on the same presses that we did Rolling Stone on. We were not glossy for a reason – we didn’t want to be glossy, we wanted to be authentic. The fashion that we saw at the time was not for the people, not for you, not for them, not for anybody, so all of our articles were kind of irreverent because fashion was so inauthentic, it wasn’t based on what people were really wearing. A lot of our photos came from the street.

“They were newsprint just like Rolling Stone, done on the same presses. We were not glossy for a reason – we didn’t want to be glossy, we wanted to be authentic” – Baron Wolman

Why do you think that people on the street had such a different take on fashion to the one that companies were selling?

Baron Wolman: There was a cultural seed-change in the US and the UK in terms of points of view – music, how people were dressing, how people wore their hair... Everything was changing, and fashion magazines were missing all of that. We saw these changes, we were part of this, we were wearing the clothes that we were talking about. So it made perfect sense to us to cover that rather than irrelevant fashion, which was the way we saw the stuff that was in the magazines. The other thing we noticed was that street fashion actually influenced the fashion that the industry was creating –it worked its way up, it didn’t work its way down. What you saw on the street eventually became what you saw in the shows. People were just throwing stuff together in the most interesting, creative ways, and the designers were seeing this.

Was it born of a sense of anti-materialism?

Baron Wolman: It wasn’t so much anti-materialism, it was about creating your own thing – (because) your idea was as good as anybody else’s. We were the first to do stories when guys started to shave their heads, and although now tattoos are everywhere, in 1970 we did a whole issue about them. We were seeing what was going on, our people were very very aware of the changes that were happening. Then we did crazy things, like a thing called ‘Casket Couture’. There’s a whole business of making clothes for bodies that are put into caskets, so we interviewed those people to find out about their style.

So you weren’t afraid of being weird...

Baron Wolman: Yeah, we did weird stuff! We did this thing called a ‘Rags Roadtest’ which was phenomenal. We wanted to decide which jeans were the best, right? So we soaked them in this huge vat of wine and beer, the kind of thing that if you went to a club you’d get all over your jeans, and then we washed them to see which ones washed out better. We put a stone in the jeans and tied them behind a Volkswagen and we drove it around the parking lot to see how long it took for the stone to wear through, that’s how we measured the strength. You know on the back of Levi’s, you see these horses pulling the jeans? We tied them between two Volkswagens to see how long they could hold together before they split. We had a good time, it was a lot of fun. 

But there were some politics involved as well?

Baron Wolman: We were really serious on that fashion fascism thing. The point was, people had come out with the midi. The midi was an ugly, ugly dress, but the young women who were working in the offices had to buy an ugly dress in order to be ‘professional’. Women wouldn’t buy them otherwise, but that’s what the fashion industry told them to to buy, and that’s what we were fighting against – the way the fashion industry was oppressing the people that could least afford the clothes. Otherwise, there was one cover story that was somewhat political, about women walking down the street and being whistled at and hollered at by the workers. 

How much do you think that music was influencing the way that people were dressing? 

Baron Wolman: We would review music, but we actually reviewed the clothes that the musicians were wearing on the album covers to show how they were influenced. What’s interesting is that the guys got a lot of their clothing ideas from the groupies, they started borrowing clothes from them.

Were the groupies better dressed? 

Baron Wolman: Yes, they were so stylish! That’s why I photographed them, because they were so into clothes and doing crazy things with them, whether it was simple or whether it was flamboyant. They were all extraordinarily unique, virtually every one of them. They had a sense of style that came from the same ethic that created Rags. It came from being anti-clothing stores, it came from making things themselves. They’d throw things together that you’d never expect to throw together, but they looked fabulous.

Womens Wear Daily – who were the antithesis of what we were doing – started changing their point of view, they redesigned their whole magazine based on what we had done. I mean, we had a huge influence” – Baron Wolman

So there wasn’t any kind of negative connotation to being a groupie back then? 

Baron Wolman: I don’t know. When we did the groupie edition of Rolling Stone, unfortunately it supported the pejorative, negative point of view because it was like, ‘Oh, they’re just there to fuck everyone.’. But that wasn’t what I saw. Every one of those women was very unique, every one of them was trying to express their individuality, they weren’t up there just to get the guys. Some of them didn’t care, they just wanted to get backstage and parade around.

Who were the other Rags fashion icons?

Baron Wolman: Well, as far as I was concerned, in San Francisco in particular because that’s where I was living, all the women musicians defined that spirit. You look at (Jefferson Airplane frontwoman) Grace Slick, and she was a very anti-establishment person. She had been a girl scout and didn’t really believe in what they represented, but she would wear a girl scout jacket as a fashion statement. So you just saw little things like that. There was Janis (Joplin) with her big furry hats, and she had another counterculture woman, Linda Gravenites, making the clothes.

And how was the magazine received? 

Baron Wolman: It was very well-received. Womens Wear Daily saw what we were doing. People immediately said, ‘Yes! You got it! You’re getting it! This is how we feel about it!’ So we got a lot of press, and Womens Wear Daily – who were the antithesis of what we were doing – started changing their point of view, they redesigned their whole magazine based on what we had done. I mean, we had a huge influence.

So why was it so short-lived?

Baron Wolman: We ran out of money after about a year and a half. What happened was that we hit a recession. The advertisers weren’t paying their bills, a distributor wasn’t paying its bills, and I was supporting it with my own money for a long time. I got a couple of investors and they supported it for a while, but we were going nowhere because the economy was really not good then. The month, in fact, that we stopped publishing, Levi’s came in on a whole one-year advertising contract and it was like, ‘Oh shit! One month too late!’