From the beginning, rock and roll music has always possessed the capacity to create seismic paradigm shifts in the fashion world, but perhaps none happened so suddenly or unexpectedly as the one created by the arrival of Nirvana on the mainstream stage. Appearing on the heels of a near full decade of Sunset Strip hair metal and high glamour quotient synth and dance pop, the band bashed onto the industry scene with an authenticity absent since the highwater mark of punk rock’s first wave. For fans of the American independent scene, Kurt Cobain’s preference for thrift store cardigans, flannel shirts, and the occasional, androgynous pink dye job was no surprise. It was, in fact, a longstanding shorthand for a kind of proletariat music that was played in unfashionable and unseasonal places between Minneapolis and Olympia — an aesthetic cobbled together from relative poverty and the dictates of a climate where tank tops and high heels were insufficient to ward off pneumonia. Michael Nelson recently wrote enjoyably on these pages, positing the Strokes as a kind of epitome of the cross section between rock music and fashion, and suggesting that for good or ill they have ultimately proved better at selling Converse sneakers than actual music. He’s likely right about that, but Nirvana sold their fair share of Converse before them, and the Replacements before that. (Is this what we have always been building toward??)
Unlike previous Craftwerk subjects like Prince and David Bowie, Cobain remains a complicated, ambiguous figure with regard to his impact on fashion. Though quite obviously an embarrassment of handsome, he was seemingly no clotheshorse, and peers like Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell manifested a more stereotypical rock god posture. Much of Cobain’s self-presentation seemed cribbed from Sonic Youth and Paul Westerberg, a sort of studied carelessness that melded uncannily, and ominously, with his fragile, youthful beauty.
Farcically, but also in the exact manner one would expect, the lords of high fashion soon descended upon what was now being referred to as “grunge,” to the significant misery of anyone who had cared about the music before. In 1992, Vogue published a polarizing editorial spread of grunge fashion featuring androgynous models wearing homespun dresses and oversized flannel coats, which chagrined many designers, fashion editors, and critics alike. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier told Vogue in a haze of class-conscious confusion that “Grunge is nothing more than the way we dress when we have no money,” fashion critic Suzy Menkes declared grunge “ghastly,” and Marc Jacobs was ultimately released from a position at Perry Ellis for his grunge collection. But the final nail was driven into grunge couture’s pine box coffin by none other than Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour — fashion’s own Wicked Witch of the West — when she declared in 1994 that all Vogue shoots going forward had to be high fashion and glamorous.
And yet, weird as it may sound, Cobain made all the sense in the world as a fashion icon. For a restless generation of rock music consumers, exhausted by the implied tyranny of leather pants and unappealing loose women, Nirvana was an antidote. To fashion designers, Cobain was catnip, and was rock and roll’s own Kate Moss — delicate, waifish and impossible to look away from. It hardly mattered what he was wearing. It all came as a surprise, but it also all made too much sense.
As for Cobain and his own intentions, it remains difficult to say. He may have been vain, or he may have been too strung out to be vain. Certainly he was deeply invested in the mythology of rock and roll, perhaps tragically so. Either by happenstance or design, he has become one more iconic rock poster, along with Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. Like those forbearers in early tragedy, they’ve inspired no shortage of tributary crafts. Here’s a look at 10 of them.
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