Grunge

The term “grunge” is used to define a specific moment in twentieth-century music and fashion. Hailing from the northwest United States in the 1980s, grunge went on to have global implications for alternative bands and do-it-yourself (DIY) dressing. While grunge music and style were absorbed by a large youth following, its status as a self-conscious subculture is debatable. People who listened to grunge music did not refer to themselves as “grungers” in the same way as “punks” or “hippies.” However, like these subcultures, grunge was co-opted by the music and fashion industries through its promotion by the media.

Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, Seattle, Washington, 1990. Fueled by a back-to-basics ethic, the grunge movement started in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s. Its simple way of dress became a fashion phenomenon after the multiplatinum success of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.

Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, Seattle, Washington, 1990. Fueled by a back-to-basics ethic, the grunge movement started in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s. Its simple way of dress became a fashion phenomenon after the multiplatinum success of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.

Grunge Music

The word “grunge” dates from 1972, but did not enter popular terminology until the birth of the Seattle sound, a mix of heavy-metal, punk, and good old-fashioned rock and roll, in the late 1980s. Many musicians associated with grunge credit their exposure to early punk bands as one of their most important influences.

Like San Francisco in the 1960s, Seattle in the 1980s was a breeding ground for music that spoke to its youth. The independent record label Sub Pop recorded many of the Seattle bands inexpensively and was partly responsible for their garage sound. Many of these bands went on to receive international acclaim and major record label representation, most notably The Melvins, Mudhoney, Green River, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, TAD, and Nirvana. Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, was released in 1991, making Nirvana the first of this growing scene to go multiplatinum and Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s lead singer, the reluctant voice of his generation.

(Sub)Cultural Context

The youth movements most often associated and compared to grunge—hippie and punk—were driven both by music and politics. Punks and hippies used music and fashion to make strong statements about the world and are often referred to as “movements” due to this political component. While the youth of 1980s Seattle were aware of politics, grunge was fueled more by self-expression— sadness, disenchantment, disconnectedness, loneliness, frustration—and perhaps was an unintentional movement of sorts. There does not appear to have been a common grunge goal, such as punk’s “anarchy” or the hippies’ “peace.” Despite this lack of unifying intentionality, grunge gave voice to a bored, lost, emotionally neglected, post-punk generation—Generation X.

Grunge Fashion

If punk’s antifashion stance can be interpreted as “against fashion,” then that of grunge can be seen as “nonfashion.” The grunge youth, born of hippies and raised on punk, reinterpreted these components through their own post-hippie, post-punk, West Coast aesthetic. Grunge was essentially a slovenly, thoughtless, uncoordinated look, but with an edge. Iconic items for men and women were ripped and faded jeans, flannel shirts or wool Pendletons layered over dirty T-shirts with outdated logos, and black combat-style boots such as Dr. Martens. Because the temperature in Seattle can swing by 20 degrees in the same day, it is convenient to have a wool long-sleeved button-down shirt that can be easily removed and tied around one’s waist. The style for plaid flannel shirts and wool Pendletons is regional, having been a longtime staple for local lumberjacks and logging-industry employees—it was less a fashion choice than a utilitarian necessity.

The low-budget antimaterialist philosophy brought on by the recession made shopping at thrift stores and army surplus outlets common, adding various elements to the grunge sartorial lexicon, including beanies for warmth and unkempt hair, long underwear worn under shorts (in defiance of the changeable weather), and cargo pants. Thrift-store finds, such as vintage floral-print dresses and baby-doll nightgowns, were worn with oversized sweaters and holey cardigans. Grunge was dressing down at its most extreme, taking casualness and comfort dressing to an entirely new level.

Grunge Chic

The first mention of grunge in the fashion industry was in Women’s Wear Daily on 17 August 1992: “Three hot looks—Rave, Hip Hop and Grunge—have hit the street and stores here, each spawned by the music that’s popular among the under-21 set.” The style that had begun on the streets of Seattle had finally hit New York and was heading across the Atlantic. Later that same year, Grace Coddington (editor) and Steven Meisel (fashion photographer) did an eight-page article and layout for Vogue with the help of a Sub Pop cofounder and owner Jonathan Poneman: “Flannels, ratty tour shirts, boots, and baseball caps have become a uniform for those in the know, and their legions are growing” (p. 254). The fashion machine was drawn to the utilitarian aspects of grunge as well as the juxtapositions of textures and the old against the new. Marc Jacobs is credited with bringing grunge to the runway with his spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis. He was later followed by such designers as Calvin Klein, Christian Francis Roth, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Anna Sui, and Versace who all came out with layered and vintage looks made out of luxury fabrics.

Ultimately, grunge failed as a high-fashion trend because its vitality came from the unique and personal art of combining clothes and accessories from wildly disparate and idiosyncratic sources. Grunge was not easily repackaged and sold to the people who related to it because it was out of their price range and the upscale consumer was not taking the bait. Where grunge worked well was at low to moderate price points as middle-class kids across America were buying pre-ripped jeans, beanies, and flannels all the while dancing to Nirvana.

Post-Grunge World

Repackaging was also the fate of grunge music as every major record label tried to find the next Nirvana, and bands like Pearl Jam and Bush filled stadiums but paid little homage to grunge’s punk roots. Nevertheless, grunge ultimately managed to revive rock and roll, redefine the music of the 1990s by bringing the focus back to the guitar, and make the word “alternative” meaningless in the twenty-first century as alternative music is now the music of the masses.

What grunge did for music it also did for fashion. Grunge opened the door to recycled clothes for everyone as a fashionable, and even a chic, choice. Grunge defined a new approach to dressing that included layering and juxtapositions of patterns and textures. The DIY approach to dress has become the norm, giving the consumer the freedom to choose, to not be a slave to one look or designer, and the confidence to create personal ensembles with the goal of self-expression through style.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Coddington, Grace. “Grunge and Glory.” Vogue (December 1992): 254-263.

de la Haye, Amy, and Cathie Dingwall. Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads, and Skaters: Subcultural Style from the Forties to the Nineties. London: V&A Publications, 1996.

Polhemus, Ted. Street Style: From Sidewalk to Catwalk. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1994.

Sims, Joshua. Rock/Fashion. London: Omnibus Press, 1999.

Steele, Valerie. Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1997.

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