Canadian artist Sonja Ahlers is no stranger to WORN: we loved her when she jazzed up a pair of Keds for us that appeared in issue 8. Recently, she came out with a new book entitled The Selves. Part zine, part scrapbook, the Selves is the result of what happens when Kate Bush lyrics and images from Degrassi collide, creating a visual presentation of feminity’s role in pop culture.
How did you dress in high school?
I made art as a child but once I rolled into high school, all my ‘art’ went into my clothing. Grade 8 was my favourite year. I planned out my outfits every night after I did my homework. I would iron everything and lay it all out the night before. I was excited to wake up just to wear my new outfit. My mother was my inspiration. We shopped in thrift stores which were goldmines then because it was the eighties and nobody shopped in them. She had a divining rod and could find the most beautiful clothing you can imagine. She could cruise a row of sweaters with her eyes alone and the vintage Pringle cashmere sweaters would cry out to her.
We had a room off the kitchen which was ALL CLOTHES piled high. I would go in there and dig through the piles and see what I came up with. I wore a combination of Laura Ashley/La Cache/80s Esprit sportswear/new wave/victorian. I had this pink jean vest that I lived in. I’d also sneak clothes out because some of them were off limits (too precious). I have a strong memory of this gold metallic tote bag I carried around. It was a preppy time so this bag was out of control. I had a few jobs (babysitting/paper route) and I spent all my money on ‘designer’ clothes. I remember spending $25 on a pair of pastel-coloured Christian Dior socks. I combined this with the vintage and used pieces.
Do you ever base your first impressions of people on what they wear?
I don’t think so. I like what my friends wear. They are all individuals.
What were the main sources you used to find images for your book?
From my personal library that I’ve been amassing for years. I’m not a hoarder and I move around a lot so I edit my stuff constantly. My friend Brooke Nechvatel is my main source. She is a truly gifted illustrator. I have a lot of her work in The Selves. She did the Olsen Twins watercolour, the 80s Heart pencil drawing, the banger girl holding her pet boa constrictor (from a newspaper clipping I found), Jerri Blank/Amy Sedaris in sick yellow pajamas and the Madonna leg with the beautiful turquoise shoe that I’m obsessesed with (sidenote: I joked to myself that I was Anna Wintour art directing myself in The Selves.).
What role do you think clothing plays in the performance of femininity?
Fashion and femininity go hand in hand. Women seem to need an armour to protect their sensitivity. I think it is important to take pride in one’s appearance but it isn’t the be all end all. I’ve gone through long periods in my life where I didn’t give a rat’s ass about what I looked like. I was too busy making art. That fulfilled me. I was more interior than exterior. But I do think I am happier and more comfortable in myself when I like my clothes. Sometimes I get sad that I can’t afford the clothes I really want. I have expensive tastes when it comes down to it and I want quality*. So if you don’t have a good budget to buy what you would like, you need a lot of time to locate vintage or used. I don’t have a lot of time to do this. So what is the answer? I try my best.
*I only like natural fibres. Acrylic was invented by a demon. I have ONE polyester dress and I wear it because it’s a vintage Diane Von Furstenberg that has hot air balloons on it. I want wellmade garments that will last decades. I hate throwaway fashion (landfill).
Do you see fashion as an art form? Why or why not?
Yes. I put a lot of energy into my wardrobe in high school and certain phases in my twenties and thirties. When I was younger it bothered me that people copied my style. It bothered me a lot because I put so much time and energy into it and for someone to take a glance at you and rip off your style, that is not cool. I don’t like copy-catters. That’s when I started making art again. I seemed to make a deliberate choice to do so. I was so into my art that I didn’t care about what I wore.
Lady Gaga is art/fashion. She doesn’t inspire me per se but I am inspired by her strong identity and being true to herself. She has incredible nerve.
Do you ever try to reinvent yourself through personal style?
It happens naturally, not consciously. I’d liken my current style to holliehobbiestevienicks which makes me a living, breathing version of a page from The Selves. In that sense I have come full circle in that I’ve married my art and my personal style. I do have to be careful because I get stuck in past decades (especially the 70s) and I neeeeed to think forward. I do intend to purchase a pair of sneakers that I saw today in Montreal: 4 tones of metallic (pearlized leather) Adidas high tops. It’ll balance out my prairie look. I’ll wear them with sundresses. Dresses are the easiest thing to wear. You just throw it on. I don’t want to waste time thinking about outfits. I have to be able to ride my bike in my clothes. I also need to be comfortable.