In the beginning, it meant nothing. “It could have been sludge, grime, crud, any word like that,” according to Jonathan Poneman, the founder of Seattle-based record label Sub Pop, some time later. But in his description of the scene, sent out to journalists in the late 1980s when its soon-to-be-stars were still dossing in each other’s garages, he chose ‘grunge’. In hindsight, it’s a word that encapsulated not just the sound of bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden, but also their look; moth-eaten, unwashed, grungy.
Grunge didn’t reject fashion, it ignored it. And yet the insularity of the scene in Seattle, a city awash in rain and charity shops, meant that it hit the mainstream with a defined look. ‘Thrift’ was a local verb long before the Nevermind album hit number one and Cobain’s music, and look, was that of kids who slept on sofas or under bridges and who only bought clothes when their old ones wore through. Clothes were either warm, or they weren’t. End of.
Which made it all the more ironic when, in 1992, designer Marc Jacobs dropped a Perry Ellis collection full of army boots, beanies and plaid shirts that reworked grunge’s staples with four-figure price tags. For Vogue critic Suzy Menkes, it was “ghastly”. Jacobs got the sack, but also the last laugh; from Alexander McQueen to Virgil Abloh, designers have ever since taken what’s new and young and youthful and luxed it up.
Grunge as a trend falls in and out of fashion, but as a look, it’s never left – charity shops are still full of old jeans and cardigans; artists, musicians and students are still broke. But it’s also easy shorthand for any designer after an injection of authenticity. As ’90s fashion bubbles up everywhere, grunge has become a mood board mainstay again.
Kurt Cobain, 1990
Grunge’s first flush was a reaction to the excess of the 1980s, which grew during a recession and kicked out at the right-wing governments of George Bush Sr and, in the UK, John Major. So it’s apt that it should return now. What’s changed is who’s wearing it; guitar bands are dead, so rappers carry the torch, with Lil Yachty, A$AP Rocky and Travis Scott all partial to ripped black jeans and a flannel shirt.
“Kurt Cobain embodied cool, in a no-fucks-given way,” says the Guardian menswear editor Helen Seamons. “He is one of those rare people who, even when he looked bad, looked good. Therefore it’s a look other artists will tap into, sometimes unconsciously, because who doesn’t want a bit of Cobain cool in their look?”
Of course, rappers don’t thrift. Which means luxury brands have stepped in. “Saint Laurent is the go-to grunge rock designer brand,” says Seamons, “but Off-White, Fear of God and Amiri also all have pieces that encapsulate the grunge vibe.”
Kurt Cobain and ASAP Rocky
Their take on Kurt’s aesthetic is for the man who bought In Utero but can now afford nostalgia served up in cashmere and calfskin, rather than pleather and felted polyester. It’s just a shame we’ll never know what a man who shot himself because his band became too popular would have made of a brand knocking out frayed lumberjack shirts for almost four figures.
Fortunately, it’s also as accessible as ever if you do things the old-fashioned way – rummage around in your parents’ attics, or the rails in a charity shop, or the dustier parts of eBay. Grunge’s signature is cast-offs made your own. In a world that rattles through trends as quickly as we do now, that means there’s always a new way to look like teen spirit.
How To Wear Grunge Today
Get The Denim Right
Soundgarden et al. wore beaten up denim because, after months of touring, that’s how their handful of jeans and jackets ended up. To get something similarly lived-in, you need more than a bit of fraying.
“If you’re going for ripped jeans, they should look genuinely worn through rather than a simple slice,” says Matthew Braun, head of menswear design at River Island. “Heavily washed darker tones such as black and indigo work well as do lighter stone and acid washes.”
Fear Of God
Add A Note Of Hip-Hop
Since rappers are the new rock stars, it’s understandable that they’d channel history’s frontmen to define their look. Those leading the charge aren’t just wearing military boots and big jumpers; they’re channelling grunge’s no-rules approach to what goes with what.
“The current take has an elevated edge,” says Seamons. Partly that means luxe versions of thrift store finds, but it also mixes in elements that are pure hip-hop style: “Designer trainers and some serious jewellery.”
Make Your Clothes Your Own
Near everything in Kurt Cobain’s wardrobe was customised, from the jeans that he wore through and patched up to his Converse high tops, on which he doodled stars or wrote ironic messages like “endorsement”.
This DIY vibe works both for things you’ve thrifted and those that don’t get much air time anymore; sew metal buttons on jackets, add band patches to denim jackets or just draw all over your trainers. If nothing else, people might think you’ve copped an unreleased Vetements collab.
Make It Authentic
The quickest way to kill your grunge look is to wear those sunglasses with a red-and-black flannel shirt, topped off with a trapper hat. On Cobain, they worked because they were so anti-fashion. He wore things no one else wanted as a middle finger to mainstream style.
When you truss yourself up in all his signatures 25 years later, you just look like you’re off to a fancy dress party. Instead, channel the vibe, not the specifics; ugly accessories, shirts that don’t quite fit, junk shop sunglasses.
Fear Of God
Play With Fit
Grunge dealt with gender and sexuality in two ways. The likes of Courtney Love parodied it with the kinderwhore look, which took patriarchal favourites like saddle shoes and Peter Pan dresses, then ripped them into new, sex-drenched shapes. Others went for loose, androgynous clothes that hid the body beneath completely.
“When it comes to fit, ditch those super-skinnies,” says Braun. “Boxy hoodies, loose shirts and wider legs jeans are the way forward.” Unless you’ve got the legs for a babydoll dress and black eyeliner.
Discover Salt Spray
As the editor of one Seattle music magazine put it, Kurt Cobain’s hair looked like that because he was “too lazy to use shampoo.” While we wouldn’t advise forgoing the stuff completely, we would recommend a less-is-more tonsorial regime; if your long hair leans more toward Jared Leto than Pearl Jam, you ain’t grunge.
To speed up its transition from just-washed to just-headlined-CBGBs, douse with sea salt spray, says Ruffians creative director Denis Robinson, then blow dry until it’s still a bit damp. Finish by running some matte paste through with your fingertips, until it looks nice and stringy.
The Grunge Starter Kit
In 2015, the cardigan Cobain wore on MTV Unplugged sold for £93,000 ($122,000) at auction, despite missing buttons and being covered in stains and cigarette burns. It’s arguably his most iconic look, so we’d advise against anything too similar, or you’ll look like you’re playing dress-up.
But you should echo its ill-fitting, tossed-on vibe. “A slouchy jumper or cardigan over a band tee doesn’t look too try-hard,” says Seamons. “Size up for an oversized fit.”
Being an incestuous scene that blew up thanks to MTV, grunge artists used band tees to signal affiliations, favourites or just give props to those bands that hadn’t made it yet.
Now that Bieber has his own tour merch and you can buy band tees in supermarkets, this is somewhere to tread carefully; obscure is good, but expect to be quizzed on their B-sides.
(Not That) Checked Shirt
Washington State’s natural resources are rain and trees, so it’s no surprise the lumberjack shirt remains its most significant style contribution. Warm, hard-wearing and cheap, they were the uniform of everyone from Alice in Chains to Smashing Pumpkins.
“A soft checked flannel shirt in faded colours is really easy to work into your wardrobe, worn undone over a band T-shirt,” says Seamons. “The older and more worn it is, the better.”
Like the lumberjack shirt, army jackets were valued for their mix of hardiness and cost; you could pick one up in any surplus store and, if you bought it big enough, it would double as a sleeping bag.
Brands from Urban Outfitters to Saint Laurent do versions that come pre-patched, but if you’d rather not sell out, then just sew on your own. It’ll make for something more personal, anyway.
It seems strange in hindsight that Cobain, the embodiment of anti-establishment cool, should have made the Breton his own. But everything that makes it a Riviera favourite – its comfort, its louche air, the fact that you can slip one on with anything – chimes with his don’t-overthink-it approach to style.
His was almost an afterthought, worn with loose, patched jeans, layered under a short-sleeve tee, or even clashed with a leopard print jacket. Because in the grunge world, stripes are basically a neutral.