Often referred to as The Seattle Sound, in the early 80s to mid-90s, the Grunge movement took the world by storm with its colossal guitar groans, subversive melodies and an unlikely stream of rock stars.
I never wanted to be part of any scene, I never wanted to be a part of anything, I wanted to do my own thing. Those are the lessons I learned from punk rock. – Buzz Osbourne, The Melvins
Grunge, although arguably short-lived, influenced generations of frustrated youngsters across the globe, giving them a voice as well as a look.
Yes, like all essential subcultures, Grunge influenced the world of fashion as well as music history.
A Brief History of Grunge
Back in 1983, a small yet potent band called The Melvins started making waves in the Washington underground scene with their hard-hitting mix of metal and punk.
Around that time, Seattle was in the midst of shedding its hippie image while clutching onto its city-wide values of non-conformity and sticking it to the man. It wasn’t long before this rebellious mindset paved the way for the first wave of grunge bands – influenced by punk as well as the sound of The Melvins – the likes of Green River and Soundgarden.
Influenced by The Melvins, these bands began to pick up some serious momentum in Seattle, and the grunge scene was born.
Youths across Seattle and beyond began to get on board with the music, the attitude and the clothing, spreading the message across the pond, with Sub Pop Records producing and distributing many of the most iconic sounds of the time.
Between 1988 and 1990, a tight-knit clique of Seattle bands did a lot of member-trading and band transforming – and eventually, out of this emerged Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Little needs to be said to introduce these two big-hitters and the rest, as they say, is history. And although the original grunge scene is dead, it lives on in the youth of today through music, literature – and of course, clothing.
Authentic ’90s grunge style was one of those fashion phenomena that arose as a symbol of rebellion. The grunge style and attitude was very much about being understated, scruffy, or even unkempt. Basically, the less effort you looked like you’d put into your outfit, the better.
Grunge, by its very nature, rebels against fashion with its lo-fi, low-budget aesthetic and raw, worn look with dirt and grime forming the definition of Grunge.
The Grunge era was born from hippies but raised on hard rock, metal and punk, sported what can only be described as a unique post-hippie, post-punk, West Coast look. The grunge look was seen as slack, slovenly, grimy, thoughtless, disjointed and uncoordinated, but with an unmistakable edge.
It was about expressing your emotions through the medium of music and fashion and essentially a general ‘I don’t give a F*CK’ attitude.
But since then, it’s given birth to subgenres of the original style, most recently Pastel Grunge. This interesting style blends the gritty, unkempt, and downright ‘ugly’ elements of grunge with the complete opposite – the cute and Kawaii.
Both the punk movement and the grunge movement are rooted in DIY fashion, distressed clothing, being a key ingredient to the scene. Fashion rebels intentionally damaged clothes to make them appear naturally aged, simply because of it’s anti-fashion statement.
Distressed clothing can be abraded with chemicals, bleach, friction, and most notable, fabric rips and tears to awesome effect. From dramatic runs throughout the clothing to subtle holes here and there, this type of clothing item has “anti-fashion” written all over it. Distressed punk rock tops, band t-shirts with rips throughout or a sweater that is totally shredded are all part of the styling fun. Oversized sunglasses adds a supercool touch of style. Add a bit of plaid a cardigan and either combat boots or Converse, chains, studs, spikes, custom decals, logos, slogans and you are set
It’s all about communicating your personality.
As with everything else though the popularity of distressed clothing has evolved and become more mainstream, crossing over to various music genres and styles with very little of the authentic punk rock and grunge ethos.
If you were a teenager in the late 80s or 90s, then you know that the grunge look was everywhere. Neil Young (who is known as the Godfather of Grunge), Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden had gained huge commercial success and their style was influencing fashion. People who dressed in grunge were seen as the ultimate rebels of their generation.
When I was a teen in the 90s, I had no idea that grunge would ever be considered retro! But like many styles, grunge has found a new generation to appreciate the culture surrounding the fashion. It has also spawned a new subculture known as soft grunge, which takes elements of grunge fashion and mixes them with cutesy items and pastel colors.
History of Grunge Fashion
Grunge fashion was developed by Generation X and is a reflection of their frustration with the side effects of the eighties economical upswing and the effects of capitalism.
They refused to believe in societal classes and were annoyed by the idea of human value being defined by money and property. They didn’t approve of ”serving the machine” aka career-oriented lifestyle. In their opinion, human life was being sacrificed too much for something pointless like a 9 to 5 job.
Music, fashion, tv, and movies; all reflected a sense that the generation had no desire to participate in the status quo.
Features of Grunge Fashion
Generation X’s disdain of conformity shows itself through grunge fashion. Messy hair, careless makeup, flannel shirts and vintage items are staples of the grunge wardrobe. Floral dresses paired with combat boots was the uniform of Riot Grrrls. Shirts with slogans and band t-shirts images were paired with torn jeans. Grunge fashion is all about going against the norm.
The grunge lifestyle is about individuality. It is filled with people who want to be known for their words and work instead of adhering to what is expected of them. Through their style they express this philosophy. They avoid spending too much time on grooming and favor looks that break the molds of society. They mix new pieces with retro or vintage styles and avoid chasing commercial trends in an attempt to remove themselves from the pitfalls of capitalism.
Of course, there are those who wear the styles made fashionable during the grunge era without a clue about the ideology that developed the look. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with that either. Part of the grunge mentality is allowing others to live as they like. We are all blessed with brains that we can freely use and ideally, fashion should not be the top ranking topic for debate.
For the alt crowd, grunge is probably the most memorable style to come out of the 90s. The cozy and purposefully understated look was especially popularized by Kurt Cobain, though there was no shortage of grunge bands throughout that decade. The staples for grunge were big cozy sweaters or cardigans with a very distressed finish, but the occasional oddball combinations were also integral to the style. Converse Low Tops, as well as other sneakers, were popular across subcultures, however!