Kurt Cobain, accidental fashion icon

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Kurt Cobain’s idiosyncratic fashion taste helped launch a fashion movement known as “grunge.” Photo credit: liveforlivemusic.com

On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain died of an apparent suicide. The singer and guitarist of the mega-rock band Nirvana was just 27 years old.

Cobain’s music is his greatest legacy, but he also became an unlikely fashion icon. His scruffy look helped launch the “grunge” fashion trend of the early 90s. It was both loved and reviled, and is still influential today.

Kurt Cobain’s trademark baggy sweater, jeans and Converse became a global trend.

Young people in the 90s wore flannel shirts, long-sleeve thermals, ripped jeans and Converse sneakers in part to emulate Cobain, a counterculture icon.

Cobain’s style can be explained in three reasons.

He dressed in layers, including flannels, wool sweaters and thermals because western Washington is wet and cold.

He also dressed in mismatched clothing out of necessity. Cobain was broke until the very end of his life, even living out of his car for a period of time after moving from his hometown of Aberdeen to Seattle. So his clothes were a mix of hand-me-downs, thrift store finds and clothes from Army-Navy surplus stores. He also didn’t own many clothes, so he was often photographed in the same outfits, which made them easily replicable.

A third reason was that he was self-conscious of his own thinness. He often wore baggy sweaters and two pairs of jeans to make himself look bulkier. His thinness, and his addiction to heroin, also helped launch the “heroin chic” look of the 90s, one of his more unfortunate legacies.

When grunge blew up in 1991, it was a huge sensation. Grunge was a breath of fresh air at a time when music was dominated by the heavy metal ballads of Bon Jovi, Winger and Whitesnake.

There was the 1992 Cameron Crowe movie “Singles” about a group of twenty-something friends in grunge-era Seattle. One of the movie’s stars, Matt Dillon, actually sourced his wardrobe from Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament’s closet.

Other musicians in the Seattle scene like Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam dressed that way.

You also had Courtney Love of Hole wearing tattered babydoll dresses, ripped tights and leather boots in what was dubbed the “kinderwhore” look, the female version of grunge.

But really Kurt was the poster boy of grunge, with his movie star looks. When he was photographed for magazine covers he mostly wore his own clothes.

And MTV played Nirvana’s videos on repeat. Kurt wore a fuzzy oversized cardigan in “Come as You Are” and a striped t-shirt over a grey flannel in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In “Heart-Shaped Box” he had a metallic silver shirt on over a black-and-white striped shirt, and patched up jeans. He mismatched patterns, colors and textures, and people found that punk attitude appealing.

There’s a long history of musicians influencing fashion styles, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles. The punk image was largely created by fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.

Grunge, on the other hand, was truly anti-fashion - at least until the fashion industry caught wind of it, and that’s when the backlash to grunge truly took off.

Images from Marc Jacobs’ Spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis.

Marc Jacobs’ infamous Spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis was inspired by grunge. Supermodels Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss walked the runway wearing thrift-store-looking clothes that cost hundreds of dollars a piece.

Bergdorf Goodman was charging $275 for Jacob’s flannel-shirt prints on rayon shirts; his wool ski caps went for $175.

Cathy Horyn, a fashion writer who wrote quite dismissively about grunge style in the early 90s, wrote in her review of the Marc Jacobs show that “rarely has slovenliness looked so self-conscious, or commanded so high a price.”

“I think at the time a lot of us who were critics and sitting there on the side of the runway on Seventh Avenue were sort of ridiculously shocked about the idea that a contemporary designer would take an idea that was actually you know in the air, possibly because grunge was such a thrift shop look,” Horyn said.

It’s hard to overstate just how badly the show was received. Jacobs was fired from Perry Ellis because of that collection. Maureen Callahan, critic at large at the New York Post and author of “Champagne Supernovas” about early 90s fashion, said it nearly ended Marc Jacobs’ career.

“He was in the wilderness for quite some time after that grunge collection. I mean he was humiliated. Diane von Furstenberg told me that he was in such a bad way she tried to get him on QVC, and QVC didn't want him,” Callahan said.

And the backlash to grunge continued. In a New York Magazine piece titled “Grunge: 1992-1993, RIP” the writer says: “When grunge couture -- as Christian Francis Roth called his spring collection -- is displayed next to Azzedine Alaïa, someone is quite plainly missing the point.”

Vogue went from printing grunge fashion shoots in the early 90s to, by the late 90s, calling the trend a “clumpy downtrodden look” and “one of the worst” of all 90s trends.

Cobain found all this bewildering. He always wanted to be a famous musician but not a fashion icon, and he would have found it absurd that flannel shirts were being printed on silk and sold for hundreds of dollars.

In fact, fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave says that “Marc Jacobs sent the entire grunge collection to Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and apparently they burnt it.”

Cobain penned "Endorsement" across a pair of Converse sneakers. Photo credit: Geoff Moore

But one brand that Kurt did love is Converse. He wore cheap Chuck Taylors and at one point wrote “endorsement” on the toe cap of one of his shoes, as a joke. He never actually endorsed a brand in his lifetime.

“Ironically after Kurt died they did put out an official Converse Nirvana shoe with images of him on the side which is kind of funny in a weird way. I think he might actually have been happy with that one endorsement,” said Charles R. Cross, a Seattle-based music journalist and author of two books about Cobain.

“Unfortunately, he died wearing Converse One Star. So forever immortalized is an image that that got passed around the wire services of him deceased wearing those Converse One Stars,” Cross said.

A shoe brand that Kurt did not wear is Doc Martens. There are no photos of him wearing Docs, even though people associated Docs with grunge. He simply couldn’t afford them. And so it caused a stir when Doc Martens had an ad campaign in 2007 showing Kurt sitting on a cloud with Joe Strummer and Sid Vicious, all wearing Doc Martens. Courtney Love complained and the company pulled the ads, fired their advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and issued a public apology. But it goes to show that what Kurt wore mattered, and that the perception of his authenticity mattered.

A quarter-century later, kids are still wearing grunge inspired clothing. Go online and you’ll find plenty of YouTube videos giving advice on how to dress grunge.

Marc Jacobs went on to a successful career, launching his own line and reviving Louis Vuitton as its creative director. He even reissued his grunge collection last year, though that did not get great reviews.

Cobain was vocal in his dismissal of corporate culture. By wearing cheap and torn clothing it’s a statement against capitalism. But capitalism thrives by co-opting anti-capitalist movements. So grunge allows fashion designers to critique the system, but still make money.

Some of its critics have even come around to appreciating grunge, like Cathy Horyn, who wrote a piece for The Cut expressing admiration for “the charm and sweetness of the attitude” while also placing Marc Jacobs within a context of designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang who were reacting to the luxury world.

“If you look at it in a big context, what Marc was doing was really right in the center of all that. He was doing it in an American vein, taking something that was a home grown, you know, music movement and dress movement and kind of bringing it to the forefront of the conversation in New York. But for some reason it just ticked people off,” Horyn said.

A quarter century later, Seattle doesn’t feel so grunge-y, with Amazon and other high-tech companies flooding the city with money. But Cross says the “grunge casual” style has not gone away.

“I can guarantee you right now that in one of those Amazon skyscrapers that dot downtown Seattle, if you walk through you would see an incredible number of people wearing flannel or casual shirts and t shirts and ripped jeans. That remains sort of the uniform of Seattle,” Cross said.

And part of the lasting appeal of grunge fashion is that Nirvana’s music is still popular. If you put on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it feels no less fresh and relevant than it did in 1991.