Grunge & Glory: the strange relationship between fashion and the style of Seattle

10 April 2019 | Posted by Zackary

Women Wear’s Daily, an American business daily, is known for detecting trends before others. A reputation of discoverer to which it proves right on August 17, 1992, by becoming the very first fashion magazine to mention grunge…

Three hot looks—Rave, Hip Hop and Grunge—have hit the street and stores here, each spawned by the music that’s popular among the under-21 set.

Although the early 1990s are marked by several trends, the image of the supermodel still dominates. Grunge, whose name means “dirt”, “grime”, is therefore far from being unanimously accepted. Cathy Horyn, a sharp pen critic banned from the Armani shows, even defines this style as “the anathema of fashion”… before officially retracting nearly 25 years later (source Racked, editor’s note).

Few currents have divided the business in this way, without ever ceasing to inspire it. Last example two months ago, when Donatella Versace makes grunge the central theme of her FW19 collection. Cashmere sweaters are falsely eaten by moths, while mini slip dresses are superimposed on patterned shirts.

How did Salvation Army clothing, bought by broke young people, manage to exert such an influence on fashion? Has grunge eventually become glamorous?

(Versace FW19; © Filippo Fior for GoRunway)

The catwalk nightmare

Seattle, 1989. A few groups of oily-haired musicians, including a certain Nirvana, create a sound that mixes several subgenres from the West Coast with post-punk elements. Unlike the London rebels, they do not have any particular political consciousness or claims. Rather than revolted, they are resigned to expecting nothing, mainly interested in their guitar and their emotions.

Their looks consist only of pieces grabbed from thrift stores, often faded jeans, flannel shirts, or polyester dresses pulled out of another time — and from the bottom of the “everything for $2” bin. On their feet, old Converse or Doc Martens. They do not seek to convey any idea by the way they dress, nor to create any harmony. In a very pragmatic way, they simply wear the clothes they can afford.

In a short time, the kids finally manage to leave the concerts in seedy bars behind to get on MTV, creating a tidal wave in the process. In a society that is just recovering from the Gulf War, all the young people suddenly carry around with a lumberjack’s shirt and a strand of hair on their eyes.

The fashion world, which still capitalizes on bling and the beginnings of logomania, is completely lost. Control escapes it, it is no longer the one who dictates the trend. If haute couture knows anti-fashion, conceptual and sophisticated, grunge is much worse: it embodies its total absence.

(© Christian Francis Roth)

The season of disruption

New York, September ’92. The ’93 SS fashion week is in full swing. In the midst of the shows and after parties, three young designers present collections with a deeply grungy DNA.

Christian Francis Roth, whose muse is the singer Kim Gordon, offers a rather literal interpretation of the style. Striped tee-shirts and dishevelled caps are worn on strangers casted in the street. Anna Sui‘s silhouette is more colourful, in accordance with the criteria of the time. The traditional grungette flower dress features slits that reveal Naomi Campbell’s endless legs. As for Marc Jacobs, then head of Perry Ellis (a sportswear chic label founded in the 70s, editor’s note), he offers a version with a “hippy romantic” accent on his own terms, where the flannel shirt is cut in a sanded silk.

If they could have been applauded for their ability to perceive a street trend and elevate it to the level of catwalks — or accused of cultural appropriation, as you like — they are criticized above all for creating an aesthetic of poverty. Why reproduce what we already have at the Salvation Army? The reactions are violent; “grunge is ghastly”shouts Suzy Menkes. As a result, Marc Jacobs gets fired.

Yet, these designers manage to breathe new life into opulent luxury, a form of free spirit that inspires others in the process. We begin to see models with stunted build. Chanel copies Dr. Martens, while Grace Coddington and Steven Meisel shoot the famous editorial Grunge & Glory in the pages of Vogue, to which Fear of God will pay tribute much later in its collection 5. The ultimate paradox: what has never been intended to be desirable becomes the latest sensation.

The unspoken honeymoon ends with Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Grunge becomes too sulphurous, advertisers no longer want to be associated with it. The month after the event, Anna Wintour headlined “Strong & sexy: fashion’s new woman”.

(Grunge & Glory — Vogue USA Dec. 1992 © Steven Meisel; Condé Nast)

The style of casualness

However, a cover alone is not enough to kill grunge, nor the end of its flagship group. It directly inspires the minimalism of the end of the century led by Calvin Klein and embodied by Kate Moss, whose critics — including Bill Clinton — nicknames “heroin chic “. Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela or McQueen also have strong links with the style, which is distilled in their work.

In addition, its codes are absorbed with a rare speed. In a way, part of grunge merges with streetwear. The flannel shirt passes from rockers to rappers, jeans torn on the knees gradually enter the mores, and each teenager buys at least a pair of Converse in his mid-school years.

Yet, it still crystallizes a kind of casualness, which brands continue to exploit in a more or less pronounced manner. Some designers even make it part of their signature, like Hedi Slimane. In 2013, he asks Courtney Love to pose for his new Saint Laurent campaign. An emblematic figure, the grunge high priestess also signs a collaboration with the e-shop Nasty Gal, reproducing the wardrobe of her twenties, and has just been enrolled in the latest Gucci perfume video.

While several currents are re-emerging thanks to the 90s revival, grunge has thus never disappeared. While Marc Jacobs is relaunching his most famous collection, everything suggests that the style still has long and beautiful days ahead of it… •

Hugh Hefner's and Donatella Versace's love child, I am the visible half of the duo behind ZACKARIUM. Addicted to fashion and to Lucky Strike, my mission is to guide you smoothly through the jungle of brands and catwalks.

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