The Gen X music genre that defined the 90s emerged in Seattle in the mid 1980s, as punk was declining, and reached mainstream popularity by the mid 90s. Grunge clothing is characterized by thrift store pieces worn in an oversized, loose and distressed manner. It was spearheaded by bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.
The style was typically quite mundane and began as a way to NOT make a statement rather than the outright anti-fashion sentiment of punk. Grungers also wanted to distance themselves from any form of trend to avoid the pitfalls of capitalism, which they rebelled against.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana is an icon of the genre and wore very low key attire which related to the raw nature of the music itself. Courtney Love, the lead singer of Hole, was known for her ‘kinderwhore’ subgenre of grunge style. The pair were rock royalty and Kurt sometimes wore Courtney’s dresses to perform. Striped sweatshirts, baggy sweaters, shorts over leggings, ripped jeans and converse were some of his staples.
Pearl Jam promoted a tougher grunge look of leather jackets, kilts and Doc Martens which drew much more parallels to a punk legacy from a fashion sense.
Other elements of grunge fashion included disheveled t-shirts, often band t-shirts, worn under plaid flannel shirts. In 1992, The New York Times wrote: "This stuff is cheap, it's durable, and it's kind of timeless.” In addition to what the men wore, women also wore slip dresses with flannels, often tied around the waist, and chokers. Bleached hair was popular for both.
Marc Jacobs (for Perry Ellis) was one of the first designers to bring the grunge look to the runway. He said in 1992 that grunge is a “hippie romantic version of punk”. He showed a Spring ’93 collection full of flannel shirts, printed granny dresses, Doc Martens and knitted skullcaps. See our feature on him HERE.
A Vogue editorial entitled Grunge & Glory came out in December 1992, shot by Steven Meisel and styled by Grace Coddington. It was said to be influenced by Marc Jacobs' collection.
The kinderwhore look championed by Courtney Love utilized a combination of cute/youthful styles like babydoll and Peter Pan collar dresses and Mary Jane shoes with more adult elements like smudged dark red lipstick, ripped tights and lingerie. Vintage was also an important element of the look. It originated in the mid 80s with Courtney’s previous band Pagan Babies which she was in with future Babes in Toyland vocalist Kat Bjelland (below).
The actress Drew Barrymore was a prominent cultural figure at the time, having been a child star in the 80s. She started dating Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson in late 1994 after Kurt Cobain had passed away. She was made the godmother of Courtney Love and Cobain's daughter Frances Bean. All of this to say that Drew herself was a style icon and was heavily influenced by Grunge. She even took to wearing satin slip dresses like Courtney.
Grunge made a comeback as ‘soft grunge’ in the 2010s with nostalgia for the 90s emerging as 90s kids became adults. Meadham Kirchhoff’s S/S 2012 collection was inspired by the style, with its runway show being opened by introducing a group of women dressed as Courtney Love during Hole’s 1996 Reading Festival performance.
In 2013, Yves Saint Laurent and Dries Van Noten brought back grunge to their runways and the fast fashion retailers soon followed suit.
Below is a list of 90s films that feature grunger characters or Gen X themes in keeping with the grunge movement. The costume design is fun to reference and it would be great to take a deep dive into the costuming of these characters at a later date.Empire Records (1995)
Costume designer: Susan Lyall (Lyall also did 200 Cigarettes in 1999 starring Courtney Love)
Costume designer: None credited
Costume designer: Dana Allyson
The Doom Generation (1995)
Costume Designer: Catherine Cooper-Thoman
Costume Designer: Jane Ruhm
Costume designer: Bridget Kelly
Reality Bites (1994)
Costume designer: Eugenie Bafaloukos
Costume designer: Rachael Fleming
Costume designer: None credited
Costume designer: Sara Jane Slotnick