Sometimes I wonder if, while sitting in a dingy and barely insulated basement somewhere around Aberdeen, Washington in the late 80s/early 90s, Kurt Cobain ever thought about fashion.
Cobain was many things: a savvy human watcher who was keenly attuned to modern trends, an antisocial punk who hated those same modern trends, an iconoclastic institution buster who couldn’t fit into a mold if it was made from his own diminutive impression. But it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to assume Cobain wasn’t hoarding away copies of Vogue.
So the easy answer is to say, no, Cobain never thought about fashion. But that would ignore some realities: one was that Cobain was a performer, someone who, when he stepped onstage or into a public place every second after the year 1990, was aware of the fact that everyone was looking at him. Second, Cobain knew that what he wore could have a seismic impact on popular trends and public discourse. He could wear female clothing in a spread for Mademoiselle Magazine, put on a dress for an appearance on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, or wear a shirt that reignited the career of an outsider musician who was residing in a mental institution at the time. That’s the kind of power and visibility you can’t buy.
The reason I often think about Cobain and fashion together is because there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t see some 19 year old walking to the bars with a flannel shirt draped around them. Sometimes these are accompanied by Nirvana shirts, but for others this would seem too obvious a stab at nostalgia. (Even wearing a Nirvana T-shirt has transformed from being an indicator of liking the band and alternative music to a cliched piece of poseur couture to now being something more nebulous and indefinable. It’s really for the masses now. It belongs to everyone.) Cobain was certainly not the originator of the style, because when you live in the perpetually-damp and dreary Pacific Northwest flannel is less a “fashion statement” and more “a necessity so you don’t freeze”, but he and the other figureheads of the grunge movement brought the pragmatic fabric and turned it into what could derisively be termed as lumberjack chic.
The 90s, when taken as a whole, was far less daring in its challenging fashion trends than previous decades. The 80s had vibrant neons, the 70s had florals and bellbottoms, the 60s had psychedelic hippie chic, but the 90s had a new focus. Authenticity was now a concern. A certain amount of realness was the name of the game, at least in America. Most of Britain’s fashion choices throughout the decade didn’t end up catching on. Everything from Liam Gallagher’s parka-laden wardrobe to Ginger Spice’s Union Jack minidress created brief fads, but if worn today would explicitly come off as a nod to the past rather than a true embrace of enduring fashion choices.
The Modern Age
Instead, we had an era of simplicity. Loud designs and bold prints were paired down to stark single color outfits as streetwear style became the name of the fashion game. Jeans and T-Shirts, once the epitome of casual relaxation, was now high haute. A direct line can be drawn from the casual chic of the 90s to the modern go-to bar hopping outfit for college freshman: white shirt/tank top, blue jeans with various levels of rip, and Chuck Taylor’s. Surely the influence of Generation X couldn’t still have a hold on the fashion choices of our modern times, could it?
But look at what we wear today: Doc Martens, chokers, high waisted jeans, these are trends that had their big moments nearly 30 years ago. And it doesn’t stop at clothes. If I had a dollar for every frat boy or stoner that had this slightly too long 90s Chandler Bing haircut right now, I’d have enough for them to actually afford a good haircut. The Rachel may not come back, but The Chandler may have surprising staying power.
What the World is Waiting For
So what is it about redundancy, about throwback culture, that is so appealing? Well, for one, it’s established. The chance taking, rule breaking, zeitgeist chasing, taste making aspect of fashion is what the industry, and the expression as a whole, prides itself on. But it’s scary, especially for those who don’t consider themselves particularly “fashionable”. For the people who aren’t as willing to take the aesthetic leap that comes with cutting edge fashion choices, it may be more comfortable to see what was once acceptable and simply replicate it to the best of their abilities. Whether you’re ironically wearing mom jeans and a fanny pack or not, it has been established as a look, and that’s comforting for the people who like to wear that look.
Maybe it’s also worth considering that a lot of the clothing trends in the 90s were, for lack of a better term, evergreen. This is where we can look back at the simplicities of the color schemes, prints, and designs of a time where less really was more. If a direct line can be traced between the paired-back style of the decade and, say, what Dua Lipa wore to the Grammys this past year, then maybe it’s worth considering that not all fashion choices have to stay confined to the time periods that originated them.
You Know Your Right
So now we come all the way back to Kurt Cobain circa 1989. Bleach is selling well for an album on an independent label, your gigs are steadily becoming bigger and bigger, and you are starting to get attention from major labels. It wouldn’t be outrageous for you to imagine that you would be getting an increase in attention. Maybe you can reach the upper echelon of alternative rock like your heroes R.E.M. or your friends like Sonic Youth. But your expectations are tempered, and besides, you are not interested in the corporate ideals of the music industry anyway, so there’s no thought of softening your punk-inspired or thrift store look. With that, you are unwittingly on the burgeoning edge of a style revolution that would still be felt decades later. Your sense of simple, comfy, and practical is more than a lifestyle: it’s a philosophy. Things would only get bigger, and more complicated, from here, but hey, kids are going to be wearing your band’s shirt forever.