Despite the grunge fashion movement springing, quite ironically I dare say, out of rebellious, anti-fashion sentiments, by and large, it has forever left an indelible mark on the face of both women’s and men’s fashion alike – no singular figure from that era being more influential in this regard than Nirvana-front-man Kurt Cobain. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another single style icon in history, especially a male, whose trend-setting ripples have reached as far as Kurt’s have. In further irony, reluctant and tormented young Cobain never asked for nor desired this distinction. But I guess that’s kind of part of it – part of the genius and the appeal – isn’t it?
On a personal side-note, I admit I find some particular glee (the cool kind) in the fact that a sensitive, oddball introvert like Kurt somehow managed to rise to such a revered station in an extroverts’ world so often preoccupied with conformity and coloring inside the lines. Though I don’t imagine he was able to fully see himself in this light, I believe he did an extremely important work as he battled against the narrow silos of identity and expectations we inexplicably create for ourselves and for one another simply by being himself.
But being a fellow native of the Pacific Northwest and spending much of my boyhood in small-town Washington feeling similarly disenfranchised and disconnected, I automatically identified with the reticent rock star. I related to his cyclical, Pisces/Virgo neuroticism and idealism as well, in a way I didn’t fully comprehend at the time – but that too is another conversation for a different time and place.
As fortune would have it, however, around the very time Nirvana, Cobain, and the grunge movement that erupted in their wake were cementing their position in popular culture is right when shaggy-haired, pubescent, little me had his very first remotely fashion-conscious brain-thoughts. My formative years landed squarely in the plaid-spangled, angst-ridden, Cobain-centric ‘90s.
So, since this is essentially where I began my fashion journey, this is exactly where we shall begin our series of explorations on notable figures in men’s fashion. It just feels like the right thing to do.
Kurt’s appearance, though born partly from the outsider uniforms and philosophies of bohemians, hippies, and punks that paved the road of rebellion before him, was primarily a product of poverty and accessibility. He wore what was available to him. Growing up in the gray-skied logging community of Aberdeen, Washington, flannel was plentiful, and his tattered, dingy, phlegm-colored fashions from some forgotten era looked to be ripped from the racks of some small-town thrift store… most probably because they were!
We, of course, cannot talk about grunge or its poster boy without discussing us some flannel. Plaid, more than anything else it seems, was the fashion hallmark of this “X” generation. I clearly remember the department store racks in those days being overripe with every manner of plaid flannel imaginable and spending hours hunting for the just right one. We never left the house without a flannel back then, and, taking our cue from Kurt, we only ever wore them unbuttoned over a t-shirt; tied around the waist and out of the way was also acceptable. Sometimes we even rocked both – yep, at the same time.
And there was none of this chino nonsense in the nineties. We wore jeans like real Americans! We didn’t wear fancy, designer jeans either. They were worn and ripped and patched and frayed and disgusting. They were ill fitting and glorious. You would rarely catch Kurt in anything but secondhand, garbage denim and, therefore, us neither, goshdarnit!
Notice the shoes. Kurt seemed to prefer his Converse-esque, Chuck-Taylor-style, plimsolls. I remember wearing some cheap, off-brand version of these way back when, though I don’t remember them being quite the must-have fashion item then that they became years later.
A keystone of Kurt Cobain’s style and a foundational principle of the grunge aesthetic is layering. Reportedly, Kurt was self-conscious about his slender frame and was often cold as well. Because of this, he tended to bulk up with oversized cardigans, sweaters, and jackets, often layering numbers of these together at once.
Kurt even managed to put his own layered, grunge spin on classic rock star leather.
A bit of 1960s mod fashion also found its way into his wardrobe, no doubt owing to the nature of the thrift store inventory around him, but he wore this too with his distinct degree of dishevelment we all so unquestioningly wanted to emulate. Particularly iconic was that ratty, mohair cardigan Cobain wore for Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged concert in 1993. The cardigan has since been sold at auction for the rock-bottom price of $137,500!
Horizontal stripes play a notable role in the Kurt Cobain look book. There was that oversized, black and red, wide-striped sweater and the black and white, skinny-striped, long-sleeve shirt he wore. And we can’t forget the hugely iconic green stripy getup of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” fame.
Kurt also sported a lot of random graphic tees – usually quite simplistic and bizarre. He also was wont to wear band t-shirts of other bands he liked and wanted to promote. This evidenced his genuine passion for music and his generosity toward fellow artists whose work was worthy of appreciation and admiration.
Talking accessories, now, there was an assortment of fingerless gloves and wrist or arm warmers, that flappy trapper hat, beanies, long necklaces, and, of course, those unmistakable oval sunglasses, which he most famously wore in white but was also photographed wearing in red as well as blue.
We should also discuss the hair for a minute. Though for a time it fell long past his shoulders, and he even wore it cropped and shaggy for a certain period too, Kurt is most famous for his greasy, unbrushed, shoulder-length bleach-blonde hairstyle. It has been said that for years he couldn’t afford actual shampoo so he simply washed his hair with cake soap, giving him his signature, stringy, unkempt look.
What’s more, Kurt experimented occasionally with a few other hair colors – colors you could find in, oh, let’s say a Kool-Aid packet, because that’s exactly what he used to dye his hair. His red period is the best known, but he also dabbled in other delicious hues of sugary drink here and there.
But above all this, it’s Kurt’s anything-goes, I-don’t-take-myself-too-seriously attitude toward fashion and his constant willingness to take risks and take them so cavalierly that truly distinguishes him. There was tremendous pressure on him as the undesirably dubbed “voice of a generation” to be a proper fashion icon befitting his celebrity status. Kurt seemed to respond to this pressure in his own unique way – with an endless parade of amusingly zany, middle-finger-to-fashion moments that not only raised our eyebrows but also demanded our respect!
Kurt’s influence can still clearly be seen to this day in the work of various fashion designers…
…and on catwalks across the globe.
Evidences of grunge fashion continues to live on in one form or another on city streets everywhere.
Even trendsetters of today, male and female alike – from multiple generations – look to Kurt for a little style inspiration.
Kurt Cobain changed the face of cool forever. He redefined the rock star archetype and showed us we could be ourselves no matter what everyone else around us was doing.
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