THE Ultimate Grunge Style Guide
20th February 2017. Kurt Cobain would have celebrated his 50th birthday. The Nirvana frontman cemented his place in fashion and music history long before he came to take his own life in April 1994. Aided by his often nonchalant demeanour, his Seattle thrift store and middle-American mall bought ensembles looked effortlessly thrown together without so much as a thought and have influenced generations of clothing designers ever since. This legacy would perhaps be the hardest for Cobain to stomach if he was here to see it. Although privately very conscious about his image as his star grew, he was the antithesis of fashion; his clothing choices weren’t superficial but out of necessity. In this feature, we examine the birth of grunge and the Seattle style of the early 90s, break down the now iconic items that came to define Cobain’s timeless image and explore the inner workings of this endlessly creative mind.
THE CHRONICLES OF CULTURE
THE HAIR METAL GRUNGE PARADOX
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In Penelope Spheeris’ 1988 big hair, bad behaviour chronicle ‘The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II: The Metal Years’ — a sequel to an earlier documentary scattered with Kurt Cobain approved bands like Fear and Black Flag — we see superstars and aspiring posers alike engaging in absolute excess. Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip becomes the ground zero for misbehaviour. Members of Poison and W.A.S.P. appear, as well as forgotten bands like London (whose changing roster included future members of Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses). It looks appealing, but utterly doomed — not simply because of the rampant alcoholism and drug use, but because we as the viewer are fully aware of a seismic shift at the decade’s close. It simply isn’t sustainable physically or culturally.
At the height of Reagan’s reign, you could go out of step and reject the conspicuous consumption and cash is king mentality, or become a living embodiment of that overkill. Despite apparent differences, whether you were signed to a big label and being a rock cliche or defiantly indie, there was a nihilism at work.
Grunge — loose, scruffy and unpolished — and glam — all shiny flamboyance — surely had to be polar opposites right? Not quite. Chronicles of cultures have a tendency to retrospectively draw lines that neglect the blurs between them — if we’re to look at Cobain’s formative influences and the stylistic provenance of the denizens of the Whisky a Go Go, Gazzari’s and the Troubadour, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase, the New York Dolls, Kiss and Alice Cooper all played their part, whether directly, or as the fathers of a sound and aesthetic later down the line. Just as assuming that punk’s arrival in 1976 eliminated the excesses of prog would be an oversimplification, it’s important to note grunge and hair metal’s parallels as well as their key differences.
Now, with conversations on sexual identity at the forefront, cross dressing rock superstars sound like the stuff of glowing essays on acceptance and gender blending. Somewhat paradoxically, hair metal — with its skintight spandex, thin limbs, backcombed locks, makeup and studs — frequently extolled defiantly heterosexual tendencies to an extreme. Perhaps defensive of allegations of homosexuality, interviews were riddled with tales of brawls and skulls cracked, female groupie abuse was rampant (something of a rock tradition since day one) and homophobia certainly wasn’t uncommon (check the lyrics of Guns N’ Roses’ indefensible ‘One in a Million’ and Sebastian Bach of Skid Row’s notorious “AIDS kills fags dead” t-shirt). Even in a world where we’re assailed with horror stories of abuse and murder across social media during an early morning iPhone glance over a Nescafe, the hedonism depicted in Mötley Crüe’s memoir ‘The Dirt’ still shocks.
In stark contrast, bands like Mission of Burma, Big Black, Pixies and Sonic Youth seemed defiantly anti-poser. Frequently unisex in their lineups and lyrically dealing with the subject of misogyny (though Big Black’s Steve Albini — future ‘In Utero’ producer — was frequently misunderstood), it was a more sensitive worldview delivered with plenty of feedback. Pioneering punk band Millions of Dead Cops — a Cobain favourite — were defiantly far left. Whether that choice of no-frills attire was a statement or simply the wardrobe starving artists who’d created art that wasn’t destined for the Billboard charts is debatable.
The closeness and distance between Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana offers the best comparison of two worlds. Their frontmen’s footwear alone told a story with Kurt opting for Converse All Stars and Axl Rose wearing custom made bright red Converse hi-tops. Both signed to Geffen, ‘Nevermind’ arrived a week after the bloated ‘Use Your Illusion’ duo of albums debuted in September 1991. A mutual contempt was created when Kurt made efforts to separate both group’s sounds during interviews around their LP’s release, though Axl was clearly a fan and one who opted to show his support on his head by wearing a Nirvana cap just as he’d worn an N.W.A. one. By 1992’s MTV Video Music Awards, Axl was threatening Courtney Love and Kurt, with Dave Grohl goading him from the stage. The old guard battling with the new guard. But, as was made clear by the much-maligned covers album ’The Spaghetti Incident?’, Axl and co’s Fear and Stooges tributes indicated that their sound came from some similar sources.
By the time that “Hi Axl!” (MTV Music Video Awards 1992) refrain was angering the temperamental rocker, Kurt’s attire had become influential. His poster boy looks were indisputably part of the package, with every attempt to downplay them seemingly backfiring to make him more iconic. Given those Pacific Northwest blue collar roots, jeans and a plaid shirt was an inevitable uniform (Pendleton Woolen Mills is located in neighbouring Oregon). A looser fit captured the essence of that looser sound. Press shots of Nirvana look like a Kapital or Needles lookbook, while Takahiro Miyashita was clearly taking notes for Number (N)ine after spending time in Portland, and Kurt’s look was regularly featured in the influential ‘Last Orgy’ articles by Nigo, Jun and Hiroshi. Marc Jacobs saw the impact early and got himself fired with his layered, plaid mix for Perry Ellis shown in late 1992.
To assume that Kurt was dressing himself with a junkie’s spontaneity, nonplussed by appearance might be a little wide of the mark. Prone to dressing in drag — albeit to provoke bigots, as was the case with his kiss with bandmates on ’Saturday Night Live’, rather than peacock — he was evidently image aware. With his bleached hair, cheetah print, Jackie O sunglasses and nail polish for Jesse Frohman’s 1993 portraits, was he really a polar opposite of the arresting outfits that Bret Michaels and his Poison bandmates? Even when the gear they wore was different, the gear in their veins bore similarities.
It’s crucial not to write off the stylistic legacy of that 1980s glam metal scene as an absolute folly either. Arriving on the scene with less critical plaudits than Nirvana in the early 1990s, the Manic Street Preachers were frequently arch contrarians and their reference points were Guns N’ Roses and Finnish glam band Hanoi Rocks who’d been instrumental in inspiring gutter glam bands on the Sunset Strip scene (Guns N’ Roses made no secret of Hanoi Rocks’ influence either, reissuing their albums on their Uzi Suicide label). Given their carefully made up androgyny, journalists tried to fuel a war between the Manics’ glam-rock against grunge time and time again, but when lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards joined the same 27-club as Cobain after disappearing 10 months after his suicide, ‘In Utero’ was in the tape deck of his discarded Vauxhall Cavalier. Raf Simons would dedicate his A/W ’01-’02 ‘Riot, Riot, Riot’ collection to Edwards, receiving a far better reaction than Marc Jacobs’ tribute to grunge a decade earlier.
In 2017, if you’ve got more money than cultural credentials, you can wander to stores just walking distance of the West Hollywood stomplng ground of the Crüe and their peers back in their salad days. There, you can put down a grand to buy a vintage Nirvana t-shirt — the very same one that was 12.99 in a Virgin Megastore 25 years ago. The 1988 poser in the lipgloss and skintight trousers was arguably a more credible character than the modern day spendthrift faking the thrift look. If you’re a label owner purporting to be channeling Kurt Cobain in your apparel, he’d probably hate you more than he ever hated Axl Rose.
Text_Goodhood Creative Illustration_Sarah Larnach
A fan of vintage thrifty stores he would often scour them for anything cheap, weird and interesting to his eye. Necessity dictated the layers of clothes whether it be about protection from the cold Washington state climate or whether his own inhibitions about his body were over compensated for. In truth his style was random, eclectic and seemingly spontaneous. But just like Kurt’s road to success and stardom it was often carefully orchestrated, and what looks unplanned and accidental was certainly assisted by his keen eye for aesthetics. As someone that struggled with perceptions of self he was more than aware of the image he could create.
On acquiring his first guitar he notoriously carried it around even after it was broken expressing his image as a musician. Music and fashion have often been uncomfortable bed fellows, with the latter often feeding off musicians style with little credibility, Kurt and Courtney famously burned the Marc Jacobs Perry Ellis collection that Jacobs personally sent them. Musicians issues with the social construct of fashion feeds their fashion choices in the first place.
Kurt’s own creative output was unhindered by boundaries often turning his hand to painting, graphics or film making. Unable to afford blank canvases Kurt would find board games and use the backs to paint or customise religious busts with blood tears and it was perhaps these first forays with mixed media that opened the gates to Kurt creating his own personal style. His challenging anti-establishment viewpoints would cross over into his t-shirts which he would often produce himself with the aid of a black marker. The punk DIY fanzine aesthetic mixed with his often outlandish sense of humour created some of the most memorable images of him for instance the Rolling Stones magazine cover shoot wearing the ‘Corporate Magazines Still Suck,’ t-shirt.
He experimented with pseudonyms and alter ego’s naming himself Kurdt, or Kobain subverting the social construct of his identity. Anti mainstream rhetoric and a sharp sense of humour lead to his outfits often carrying subversive messages. If it was his Nixon Now sticker famously on his guitar or ‘Kill the Grateful Dead’ on his t-shirt .. he was as happy letting people guess as to what his motivations were rather than having a definitive reason.
His influences he wore on his sleeve literally. A small K Records tattoo on his arm and his favourite bands t-shirts did everything the underground music scene needed to propel their bands into the spotlights. This was certainly how the emerging music scene soon to be dubbed ‘grunge’ dressed, yet his untimely death has created a vault of gold that is referenced time and time again. Perhaps it was solely his ability to recognise the moment and seemingly disregard it’s relevance that captured the style industries imagination. After all this the kind of cool that marketers dream of, yet paradoxically the kind that can’t be manufactured and maybe Kurt just knew exactly that. He never worked with stylists and struggled with his creative vision being compromised as this is when you fit into the industries narrative of who you are. ‘Keep ‘em guessing’ has worked for rocks stars for decades and as cliched as it sounds Kurt did his particular homework when learning how to be Rock star 101.
Below we explore the key pieces of Kurt's infamous wardrobe.
From New York Beatniks to Los Angeles surfers, Cobain’s long sleeve striped t-shirt is as classic as classic gets. Directly referenced by Japanese brands like Unused, but a continual wardrobe staple for both men and women.
It’s nigh on impossible to find pictures of Cobain not wearing jeans. Battered ones too. Bought from thrift stores and naturally worn in, there is no other item that sums up the early 90s grunge aesthetic that Kurt unwittingly spearheaded than these. This pair, worn to the MTV Awards in 1992, encapsulates Cobain’s DIY aesthetic, with different fabrics and patterns cut and pasted haphazardly. Kurt’s denim has been a source of inspiration for Junya Watanabe & Levi's Vintage Clothing over recent seasons.
Long Hair Don't Care
His core style revolved around, cheap thrift store found sunglasses, Levi’s 501 jeans with holes or patched in a bohemian style, beautiful argyle mohair cardigans, band tees and a pair of Converse sneakers often customised with marker pen on the toe.
Perhaps influenced by his admiration of The Beatles, particularly John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s famous bed ins, the wearing of pyjamas was a protest, a rejection against societal norms of what you should and shouldn’t wear and where you could and couldn’t wear them. Kurt most famously wore pyjamas to his wedding with Courtney Love on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii in 1992.
His style has been idolised even more since his death and perhaps more than any other musician we find his beloved wardrobe cropping up in many collections, lovingly reproduced by the hands of Japanese master craftsmen like Junya Watanabe, Neighborhood and Needles.
One of Kurt’s more recognisable items and often referred to as his ‘grandad cardigans’, they were mostly picked up from thrift stores and aided in combatting the harsh temperatures of his Washington homeland. One of the most famous instances is for the recording of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged live album. The avocado green cardigan worn by Cobain sold at auction in Los Angeles for $137,500 in 2015.
Cobain was photographed wearing ear-flapped pilot style hats on a couple of occasions, most famously for his Nirvana portraits with photographer Jesse Frohman but also in younger years when battling the cold winters of Washington State. Japanese designer Junya Watanabe has referenced these in recent collections.
According to Courtney Love (and backed up by his constantly battered footwear), Kurt would wear a single pair of shoes until they were unwearable before replacing them. Most of the time they were classic Converse styles including Chuck Taylors, One Stars and Jack Purcell’s often customised by hand by Cobain himself, although he was seen sporting Vans on several occasions. The pair above have the word 'endorsement' written across the toe cap, and his One Stars had pencil scrawled stars added around the front of the midsole.
THE MOST FAMOUS KURT COBAIN T-shirts
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Music Journalist Everett True (who also introduced Kurt to Courtney Love) gave Cobain the t-shirt after Kurt had mentioned how much he liked Johnston’s work. Because Kurt wore the t-shirt so much, interest in Johnston increased, climaxing with multiple record labels trying to sign him at the same time, even though he was a resident in a mental hospital at the time.
Inner City Mission
At a show at Bogarts in Longbeach, California, Kurt wore an ‘Inner City Missions’ T-shirt. Inner City Missions is a Philadelphia-based non-profit that reaches out to people in need, mainly working with homeless people, prostitutes, drug addicts and vulnerable children.
This graphic is from a weekly British music newspaper entitled Sounds. The longsleeve was worn by Cobain at Reading Festival in 1991, when he came on in a wheelchair wearing a wig and full length dress. He wore the shirt as a fan of the magazine, which had released its final issue a few months before the festival.
This t-shirt was customized by Kurt who added ‘Kill the Grateful Dead’ by hand before a shoot with Rolling Stone magazine. Cobain had mentioned previously that he thought The Grateful Dead were overrated and in his journals the phrase ‘bring me the blood of Jerry Garcia’ is repeated. Courtney Love's now estanged father was the band's road manager when shes was growing up, and she he even appeared on the back cover of The Grateful Dead’s 'Aoxomoxoa' album.
Nirvana and Mudhoney were both signed to Sub Pop Records in the late 80s and 90s., an independent record label from Seattle. Although they didn’t reach anywhere near the extent of Nirvana's fame, Kurt has said they were a major inspiration and wore the t-shirt to support the band.
Kurt lived in Olympia, Washington from 1989 to 1991. The town is primarily known for its brewing company (opened in 1896), located in-between Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen and Seattle. This is the period where Kurt wrote most of nirvanas best-known songs, but it was not until 1994 on a photo shoot in Paris where he was photographed wearing it. A nod to his grass roots or a memento of better times?
Flipper is an American punk band from San Francisco, California formed in 1979. The bands logo was made famous when Kurt Cobain made a "do it yourself" Flipper shirt backstage at Saturday Night Live before performing in 1992. Since Cobain drew the logo free hand, his rendition was slightly different from the original Flipper logo. The "Cobain Flipper" became the popular logo because he continued to wear the DIY’d shirt, in the "Come As You Are" music video and in photo shoots for the Nirvana "In Utero" album. Krist Novoselic, bassist for Nirvana, ended up playing with them for a while after nirvana ended.
Similar to the artwork for the In Utero Album art work rumor’s of him buying the T-shirt at the Minneapolis medical surplus store near to where the album was recorded. Kurt may have been drawn to the biology of humans due to his own condition of Crohn’s disease.
Corporate Magazines Suck
This shirt, along with the Kill The Grateful shirt, was prepared by Kurt for Nirvana’s first front cover shoot for The Rolling Stone. Although the Grateful Dead shirt was cut from the shoot amazingly this t-shirt made it on the front cover of the April issue in 1992. Corproate rock still sucks.
Grunge Is Dead
Kurt wore this t-shirt in a photo shoot shot by Stephen Sweet with his newly born child Frances Bean Cobain. He wrote 'diet grrrl' on her stomach, perahaps a reference to the feminist magazine of the time ‘riot grrrl?’
Blue Cheer were a psychedelic rock band from San Francisco in the late 60s / early 70s. Because of their slightly harder sound it became popular for the 90s grunge scene. Kurt wore a t-shirt with the graphic from their first album release in 1968, Vincebus Eruptum.
Frightwig was an all girl American Punk feminist band around in the 80s. They often invited men onto the stage to strip as ‘a sexist turnaround’. He wore the shirt during the famous Nirvana MTV Unplugged show.
BEHIND THE ONE WAY MIRROR
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They’ve got a function so straightforward it’s built into the name, but sunglasses block out much more than the sun — a lot of the time, they’re just as much about keeping things in. Like that famous quote by Yohji Yamamoto about the colour black, there’s something liberating about wearing shades at all hours of the day, closing off the windows to the soul and taking full control of the most expressive part of the self.
We’ve built countless mythologies around people who hid behind a pair of darkened lenses; Zach de la Rocha once sung, ‘I wanna be Jackie Onassis. I wanna wear a pair of dark sunglasses’; Karl Lagerfeld wouldn’t be half as imposing if you could see the whites of his eyes; and though he actually wore his thick-rimmed prescription wayfarers onstage to combat his severe stage fright, Roy Orbison’s sunglasses became a vital component to his on-stage persona, radiating an effortless cool that both bolstered and betrayed the reserved fragility that defined his music. As for Kurt’s iconic white “alien” sunglasses, you can break them down quite simply. Thick white frames that you couldn’t miss; so big they engulfed his face; lenses so dark you doubt if he could even see through them. The message is clear: Fuck off.
With their powerful symbolism and the subtle messages they transmit, sunglasses encapsulate the power of non-verbal communication; the performative act of refusing to engage with the gaze of others; the comfort that comes from being on the right side of a one-way mirror. In the words of L7, ‘I wear my shades so our eyes don’t meet. I’m scared every fucking day. I wear my headphones so I can’t hear what you say. Can I run?’
For the more withdrawn among us, sunglasses are a refuge from a dynamic, extroverted world that thrives on firm handshakes, glossy smiles and constant eye contact. For the weekend/weekday/weeknight/whatever warriors, they help us get away with living double lives by never letting on where we’ve just come from. And for those of us who’d rather be somewhere else, doing something much more stimulating, with people far more interesting, they’re a mask that maintains an illusion so people don’t find out how we genuinely couldn’t fucking care less about whatever this meeting is about right now.
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In the years that have passed since his death, the many conflicts that plagued Kurt Cobain have been well documented; perhaps as much as the music itself. There were few elements of life that Kurt didn’t seem to struggle against; relationships; fatherhood; drugs; anxiety; medical issues. All of these issues were amplified following the runaway success of Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind, when they were introduced to a new element that proved the most tormenting of all — success.
Kurt Cobain hated fame. Hated recognition. Hated commerciality. Hated the passionate devotion of his fans. In many ways, this isn’t difficult to understand. How do you respond to random strangers glorifying you when you’re constantly plagued with self-doubt, uncertainty and self-loathing? Nirvana’s success was counter-intuitive to everything that Kurt Cobain knew (or at least thought to be true) about himself.
All too often people mistakenly assume that success and recognition would be the remedy to this type of severe self-doubt; that if the individual could see themselves being admired and adored that it would somehow eliminate their fears, but it’s rarely the case. More often it only reinforces the disconnect between the interior self and the outside world.
On October 31, 1991, just over a month after Nevermind’s release, Nirvana performed a show at the Paramount Theatre. Though the concert was filmed in its entirety, it was only in 2011 that the footage was released, and it paints an unsettling picture. Throughout the show Kurt doesn’t say a word to the audience, scarcely looking up from his guitar and leaving as little time as possible between each song. It’s left to Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl to awkwardly interact with the crowd, crack lame jokes and reel off the typical “thanks for coming out” script. I doubt it was that Kurt didn’t want those people there. He just couldn’t understand why they’d even come to see him play.
Excerpts from Kurt’s journals that were published in 2002 — a controversial act in light of his insular, private nature — lay bare his belief that commerciality and authenticity cannot exist in the same space, and the effect this had on his music. On one page he draws a mock-up poster for an album release that confesses ‘Nirvana can’t decide whether they want to be punk or R.E.M.’. Another page shows a doodled merchandise order form, begging the reader not to buy the one with the band’s faces on.
My personal favourite is a page that outlines Kurt’s release strategy for In Utero; first, he insists, it should be released strictly on vinyl, cassette and the obsolete 8-track format with no promotional copies for radio stations. A month later, after critics have dismissed the album and the public has lost interest, it would finally be released on “God forbid, CD” with a sticker identifying it as the “radio-friendly, unit-shifting compromise version which, by the way, Nirvana is extremely proud of” — a sarcastic testimonial that confirms exactly the opposite and demonstrates Kurt’s scathing view of the music industry’s rampant commerciality. If they wanted him to play their game, he’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming.
One can’t help but wonder why Kurt Cobain has become such a source of inspiration for artists, musicians, fashion designers and countless other creative minds since his death. From clothing inspired by his trademark flannel shirts and ripped jeans, to countless flips of Nirvana iconography, to a Gus Van Sant film loosely based on the days leading up to his death. But then again, it was also kind of inevitable.
Celebrity culture appears to have been a particular point of interest to Kurt. Songs about tragic starlet Frances Farmer, drawings of Elvis Presley and Alice Cooper, an imagined album cover of a corny, QVC Shopping Channel-esque album entitled ‘Nirvana Sings the Songs of Devo, Wipers, Vaselines & Nirvana’. He was all-too familiar with the “Rock Star” cliché and all-too aware of his proximity to it, something which terrified and disgusted him in equal measure.
Part of the magic about Kurt Cobain is the fact that he never sold out, in spite of the countless figures around him who were desperate to capitalize on Nirvana’s success. In 2017, we’re used to hearing stories about artists who retain rights to their recordings, release their own merchandise, direct their own videos and so on; though its advent has had a detrimental effect on record sales themselves, the Internet has empowered artists to take control of their own destinies and created some incredible success stories of artists who dismissed the big labels and built their own empires.
But Nirvana were around in the last days of the old system, a time when record labels held all the money and called all the shots, and yet Kurt still succeeded in retaining some level of control or agency. The abrasive, unpleasant, discordant sound of In Utero was no accident; sensing people’s desires to make megastars of Nirvana off the back of Nevermind, the only option was to create a record so thoroughly unpleasant to listen to that the mainstream surely wouldn’t be willing or even able to get behind it. It was the act of an creative mind determined to just create, without having to be a “radio-friendly unit shifter”.
Anybody who works in a creative field, whether as an artist, designer, musician, photographer, writer or otherwise, dreams of unlocking that elusive and seemingly-paradoxical space where they’re free to just create whatever they want to without having to worry about money, but still be able to pay their rent.
To some extent, Kurt arguably achieved that, creating music that was true to his self until the very end. But the problem wasn’t even one of selling out; it was that the product was selling at all.
Society has always liked to build mythologies around rebels. It’s a phenomenon that created countless James Dean wall posters and Che Guevara t-shirts. Even Bart Simpson. The difference with Kurt Cobain is that so much of his rebellion was rooted in opposing the very concept of commerciality itself. Even his success, however well-deserved, was entirely at odds with his hatred of the industry suits that made him a star. He wasn’t some perfectly-packaged Gallagher Bros. product that whipped up a perfect storm every weekend so the tabloid papers and Richard & Judy had something to gasp and tut at. He was the type of person that many of us would like to envisage ourselves being; creative, unbridled and completely rejecting a system that conflates our artistic value with our commercial viability.
A few years back I saw some footage of the Foo Fighters performing at some huge stadium show, and there’s a bit during ‘Best of You’ where Dave Grohl jumps down from the stage and runs along the front row of fans, letting them run their hands through his hair and shower him with praise. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, if Kurt could see this he’d be spinning in his grave.’
But now I realise Dave Grohl’s just a guy who’s fortunate enough to be able to embrace the rock star status the world has bestowed upon him. And then I look at my long hair, blue jeans and unbuttoned flannel shirt, and think, fuck, to be fair, if Kurt could see most of us he’d probably be sick to the pit of his stomach. And we know that. We know that because, frankly, it sickens us too.