The Body of Grunge
It was the antithesis to a decade smothered by opulence. Perhaps one of the most contentious movements of the 20th century, grunge has incited controversy for its questionable legacy and ambiguous origins for as long as it has existed. While the dark croons of Kurt Cobain and the howls of L7 defined a generation, it also unified with an intensity equal to its ability to divide. It rose out of a new DIY ethic, an alternative to that of the punks with its concrete basements, bag salads, and riot grrrl zines. Grunge not only altered the formality of expression but disrupted an industry that relied on the conventions and ideals perpetuated by its intangible reverie.
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The genesis of grunge is widely speculated and seldom credited for its contribution to fashion history; the inception of the term is debatable in itself. Mark Arm, frontman of the notable Seattle band Mudhoney, is said to have coined the term as early as 1981 in a letter to the fan zine Desperate Times, calling for “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!” Supposedly, it was the first time, on record, that the adjective had been used to describe the sounds coming out of the Seattle scene, but even Arm himself has denounced this contribution, clarifying that he “obviously didn’t make grunge up.” He had gotten it from someone else. Adding to the ambiguity, Marilyn Manson has also claimed responsibility for its advent, raising eyebrows—as he does so well. He claimed to have brought the term into the mainstream during his early days of journalism in a review of Nirvana’s Bleach circa 1989. Though, once again, it is a point of contention. From the very beginning, it was clear that grunge would be difficult to discern; a perpetual amphidromic point, the term itself undefined. The obscure nature of its beginnings set a precedence for decades of discourse within the music industry, and especially in the domain of the fashion industry.
While the answer to its origins may be unclear, how exactly it came to be what it is today is far less convoluted than any of its circumstantial history. In the late 80’s, the youth of rural Washington State rummaged through second-hand stores for durable, weather appropriate clothing. It would have to answer two questions: is it cheap and does it do the job? In a state where logging and fishing are the two largest industries, it comes as no surprise that kids, musicians, and drifters alike found themselves layered in thick flannels, old denim, and heavy sweaters—all of which exist in virtually infinite supply in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps it was a brazen, intellectual statement against commodity fetishism; a reaction to a decade’s worth of big hair and even bigger shoulders (think Axl Rose). Though more realistically, should you ask anyone who lived through it, it was far more banal than anything else: it was about making do with what you had. Despite this, no one could have predicted the tidal shift that would come of it.
Though the origins of Grunge may continue to be nebulous, one thing is for certain: the 1991 release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in conjunction with Pearl Jam’s Ten were the vessels for what would be a significant visual shift in culture, defining an entire generation. It seemed to happen overnight, millions of American youth swapped in their Members Only jackets for flannels and ill-fitted t-shirts. Unlike the glamour and intangible fantasy presented by rock bands of the 80’s, grunge was accessible. The barrier to entry was virtually absent, anyone could be anything they wanted to be and it was cool. It might not have made sense, layering sweaters under dresses and button downs over baggy shirts, but it was really, really cool.
By 1992, the media was in a frenzy trying to make sense of it all; teenagers swapped bright florals for dark, gamine silhouettes—think Belinda Carlisle for Soundgarden. Cameron Crowe’s Singles had come out in the early fall, illustrating the romantic woes of being young, grungy, and living in Seattle. The New York Times had picked it up, giving the rural, Pacific Northwest subculture its national debut. At that moment, those who had been credited for its success were just as quick to publicly denounce it, and nothing best exemplifies this than the Seattle label Sub Pop’s mockery of it. Infamously, The New York Times called Sup Pop's then-receptionist and now CEO, Megan Jasper, and asked for a “lexicon of grunge,” in which she provided in spades. To her surprise, it went through to print, featured in an article dissecting Seattle’s grunge scene. Today, it serves to illuminate the disparaging sentiment that existed at the time, beyond the residual glory that seems to eclipse this reality.
By last summer, the glossy magazines began tracking grunge looks, the threadbare flannel shirts, knobby wool sweaters and cracked leatherette coats of the Pacific Northwest's thrift-shop esthetic. Hollywood weighed in, too, with a grunge-scene movie,Singles.Then two weeks ago—all in the blink of a flashbulb—the fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who has never even been to Seattle, was hailed asthe guru of grunge.-Rick Marin for The New York Times (1992)
In the fall of 1992, grunge was in full swing, and nothing was more indicative of this than New York fashion week. Women’s Wear Daily defined the collections presented for the Spring/Summer season as emanating “the grunge look” and, ironically, “soft elegance.” No other show better illustrated this peak as well as Marc Jacobs did at Perry Ellis. The infamous collection would be the first of many to reference the relative, pseudo-culture; marking a departure from its roots in Seattle and the surrounding rural touring stops. The collection incited uproar then, and it has now made an equally tectonic return with Jacobs’ carbon-copy relaunch, naming it Grunge Redox. At the time, it elicited poignant critique for its lack of originality—receiving condemnation in a way not too far from the kind Hedi Slimane received in 2013, or John Galliano in 2003—and blatant deviation from the brand identity of Perry Ellis. The high price of the collection in contrast to its unassuming design was more of a spectacle than anything else. High fashion had taken something that came from the bottom of the 99-cent bin at the Goodwill and sent it down the runway. It was polarizing in its heady contradiction: a movement that seemingly stood for nothing was contrived to stand for something. The irony was not lost on the market, and the critique that ensued was merciless. Unsurprisingly, not long after the collection’s debut, Jacobs was fired from his position as creative director.
Though it may have played a key role in the commercialization of grunge, bringing it to the masses, Marc Jacobs’ collection for Perry Ellis was only a fraction of its narrative. Outside of its misplaced integration into the fashion industry at the time, the scene’s focus fell heavily in favor of Kurt Cobain, a demigod of sorts. If there was ever to be a poster child for grunge, it would be him. It would not be hyperbolic to say that it was akin to the influence that The Beatles had in the sixties. While it may not have stood for anything at all, grunge certainly defined the apathy of a generation in a way that hadn’t before; tangibly, collectively, and universally.
Though Grunge is widely believed to have declined in parallel to the passing of Cobain In April of 1994, its legacy prevailed. Women like Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and Courtney Love of Hole assumed position for the somber cohort. The legacy of Sandoval’s haunting voice paired with her waifish character mirrored that of photographer Corrine Day’s work in London at the time. Notably, the release of Hole’s Live Through This which poignantly and explicitly expressed trauma in both the ontological and epistemological sense, served as a catharsis for others; inspiring others to pick up a guitar, throw on a Victorian nightgown, and scream. It was an unabashed expression of self, and Love’s adoption and admirable perversion of the female form is undoubtedly one of the most influential to date—crowns, babydoll dresses, mary-janes, and slip dresses: you can thank Courtney Love for all of it.
Controversial since its advent in 1981, the connotation of grunge has been its greatest detriment. Often undermined for its cavalier attitude and disregard for traditional form, it is easy to forget its contribution to fashion history. Perhaps it is fitting that a style that stood for nothing continues to incite controversy today over its authenticity and legitimacy. But look no further than the pages of any magazine over the last fifteen years, and iterations exclaiming a grunge revival can be found plastered at the centerfold. It has been nearly 30 years since Nevermind’s seismic release, and though it may have faded into irrelevance for a brief period during the late 90s and early 2000s, it has consistently appeared on every major fashion editorial since. Grunge has been referenced, deconstructed, reconstructed, worshipped, chastised, and everything in between since its very beginning; Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall/Winter show in 2008, though described as western checks, you cannot help but feel grunge lingering in the way the dresses drape on the body, the plaids reminiscent of flannel; Hedi Slimane’s homage to the Los Angeles grunge scene at Saint Laurent in 2013 with cheetah print coats and slip dresses galore; Nasty Gal’s collaboration with Courtney Love in 2016, a revival of kinderwhore. While it may seem outrageous to declare flannels and slip dresses timeless, there is something bizarrely transcendent about it all. Grunge is and always be a subversion of the expected, a détournement; the ultimate antithesis to the little black dress.