The Lasting Legacy Of Grunge In Fashion

We’ve officially traveled so far into the future that grunge is considered retro. Children of the ‘90s may barely remember the oversized sweaters and combat boots from the first time around, but there’s no denying we certainly recognize those trends as influential today. Designer Hedi Slimane dedicated his entire A/W ’13 Saint Laurent collection to grunge fashion, and plaid shirts are pretty much a staple for any cold midwesterner during the polar vortex.

From oversized denim jackets to floral dresses, celebs like Gigi Hadid and Kylie Jenner have adopted certain grunge trends, decades after the fact, but where did they actually come from?

One iconic sneaker became a grunge mainstay, but which?

From Thrift Stores To Rich Ladies

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We’re not the only ones who noticed grunge fashion has taken roots in the modern era. Courtney Love, Hole front woman-slash-Grunge’s fairy godmother, gushed on the style’s return in Slimane’s Yves St. Laurent collection. “Having gasms at the idea of rich ladies buying what we used to wear, finally someone got the actual look exact, no beanies,” she tweeted.

Of course, all trends come full circle. Love is a rich lady now, herself. She inherited Kurt Cobain’s catalog after his untimely death and is currently worth a whopping $150 million. That’s certainly enough for a lifetime supply of thrift store baby doll dresses (and expensive, designer duds, to boot).

Without MTV, Grunge Would Have Fizzled

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In 1992, The New York Times mused, “When did grunge become grunge?” The six-letter word transformed from a musical genre to a full-on pop culture phenomenon, largely at the credit of MTV. Remember when the network showed actual music videos instead of reality shows? Remember when Real World was just a social experiment of unprecedented nature? Without that environment, the genre wouldn’t have been able to thrive.

In the early ‘90s, MTV transitioned away from the electronic, sterile sounds of ‘80s new wave and began playing videos from angsty, imperfect guitar-heavy rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. This new round of unsuspecting rockstars was the antithesis of the overly coiffed, made-up stars of the ‘80s.

Flannel, Duh!

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If there was one article of clothing that could be used to describe grunge fashion, it would be the plaid, flannel shirt. It donned the shoulders (and was tied around the waist) of almost every ’90s rock band — from Nirvana and The Red Hot Chili Peppers to REM and Stone Temple Pilots. The look has become absolutely timeless.

Today, thrift store flannels aren’t just for lumberjacks, rock stars or the type of people who hike mountains in chilly Pacific Northwest weather. This look has been adopted by street style fanatics and rappers alike, from A$AP Rocky to Rihanna.

Converse Sneakers

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Michelle Branch wasn’t a grunge icon, but the pop star, who rose to fame in the ’90s, did adopt some of the more mainstream styles. Two of these were denim and Converse sneakers. Converse All Stars might just be the most popular sneaker in the world (sorry, Yeezy). The iconic kicks came about in 1917 when the company decided to transition towards making basketball sneakers.

Since grunge fashion was decidedly dressed down, the sneakers were an obvious choice. They were donned by stars across the era from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain to Green Day and Winona Ryder.

Part Of The Look Came From Poverty

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According to Nylon,the actual term “grunge” was coined by the now-iconic Seattle-based label Sub Pop records in 1988. It was meant to describe the distinct gritty ethos of a specific brand of DIY rock originating in the Pacific Northwest.

Bands in this genre didn’t dump a lot of money into their look — even if they eventually made millions. They shopped at thrift stores, didn’t wash their hair and rejected the very idea of celebrity. Part of this was out of necessity. As “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was climbing the Billboard charts, Sub Pop’s founder Jonathan Poneman still described Nirvana’s members as “dirt poor.”

What happens when grunge goes designer? Keep reading!

By 1993, It Cornered The Luxury Market

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Grunge fashion didn’t stay in the thrift store-accumulated closets of America’s poorest arists and teenagers struggling to save up their allowance. By 1993, it had jumped into the luxury market. That year, designers like Anna Sui, Christian Francis Roth and Perry Ellis included skull caps, mismatched patterns and oversized dresses into their runway shows. This creative choice led to Marc Jacobs’ famous firing from Perry Ellis, though he’d stick with the grunge aesthetic in his own line.

“Call it boho, grunge or deja vu all over again, but the new look for spring is chaotic, contrived and so encumbered with cultural significance that even the most astute follower of fashion will find herself wondering if she’s supposed to look like Courtney Love or Nicole Diver,” Wrote Washington Post fashion critic Cathy Horyn in 1993.

By Taylor Swift’s Vogue Cover, It Was No Longer Edgy

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Since 1993, grunge fashion has remained in the mainstream. We see it in the sale racks at Urban Outfitters. We see lining the storefronts of trendy, fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 and H&M. Instagram’s explore page is littered with fishnet-clad, self-proclaimed models rocking oversized ‘90s band tees. Even Taylor Swift, who at one point was branded as America’s wholesome country sweetheart, got a grunge makeover for Vogue.

For the shoot, Anna Wintour ended up editing Swift’s entire wardrobe to include vintage dresses from Anna Sui’s famed 1993 collection, combat boots and lots of leather. Her famously blonde hair was dyed an edgy shade of platinum and the country girl next door was officially a rebel.

Lots Of Leather

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Long before Stranger Things or Johnny Depp ever getting his Winona Ryder tattoo covered up, the quirky Hollywood favorites were an item. They were also the epitome of grunge style — from Depp’s long hair to Ryder’s cropped cuts.

In this image, from the 1990 NATO/ShoWest convention at Bally’s Casino in Las Vegas, Ryder dons a grunge staple: a tattered, oversized leather jacket. Believe it or not, her look wasn’t always grunge. In the early 1900s, leather jackets were exclusively military garb, but by the 1930s the style was co-opted by motorcyclists when raincoat maker Irving Schott designed a leather jacket for Harley Davidson.

A Grungy Side Part And Turtleneck

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Today, Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t exactly known as the arbiter of cool. Yes, she’s eternally beautiful, but her affluent-targeted lifestyle website GOOP has brought innumerable criticisms labeling the star as out-of-touch with the average person. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a Hollywood “It” girl in the ’90s.

In this photo from the early ’90s, Paltrow is effortlessly grungy with her flipped back side part and leather jacket. She finishes it off with a too-cool, light wash jean. Brad Pitt, her then boyfriend who was once named the sexiest man alive, is wearing another popular grunge staple: a thick-knit turtleneck sweater. Remember when men wore turtlenecks?

This grungy hairstyle was too cute.

Cropped Hair And Mega-Platforms

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Cropped pixie cuts rose to popularity in the 1950s with Audrey Hepburn. The trend grew in throughout the 1960s thanks to supermodel Twiggy, but by the 1990s, the hairstyle made a major resurgence. Grunge style adopted the look for its spunky, androgyny, which is none more apparent than on Drew Barrymore.

In this photo, taken from a London hotel room in 1997, the star shows off her leg tattoo in a green, floral dress and gigantic patent platforms. Platforms may have originated in ancient japan, but by the time the ’90s rolled around, they were adopted by ravers and grungers alike.

The Infamous Slip Dress


Grunge had its roots in defiance — and the slip dress was the answer. It rose out of a need for rebellion in an ’80s era clad with shoulder pads, sequins and excess. This stripped-down look was part dangerous (it was underwear as outerwear — how scandalous) and part stripped-down.

In this photo from 1995 Lollapalooza, Courtney Love dons a tattered, form-fitting slip dress. The baby doll silhouette was particularly popular during the era, and Love frequently wore these types of dresses on stage while performing with her band Hole.

Lolita Dresses

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You might recognize Lolita style from Japan’s infamous Harajuku girls, but back in the 1990s, the look was quite popular among grunge musicians and fans. Courtney Love helped popularize the look, which was categorized by juvenile-looking, flouncy dresses with feminine details like lace, tulle, flowers or satin.

Almost always, they came in a hyper-feminine color like pink or an innocent-but-sexy white. Love’s Lolita looks excelled because of their juxtaposition. It was almost taboo in the way it pits the feminine form against a dress better suited for a school girl on her first communion. Today, the style is still popular.

Say Hello To Band Tees

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In the ’80s, we had metal tees. In the ’90s, we had indie band tees from obscure acts. Kurt Cobain help popularize this particular shirt from singer-songwriter, Daniel Johnston. Today, there’s a mural of Daniel Johnston’s album art in Austin, Texas largely because of the shirt’s popularity.

Unlike Johnston’s fans — which included famed ’90s bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana — the musician never achieved mainstream success. He even had a brief stint on a major label that ultimately didn’t work out. His name went down in infamy after Cobain wore the shirt during a 1992 MTV Music Awards performance.

Fishnets And Florals

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If you open your Instagram explore page, there’s a high chance you’ll see a steady stream of Instagram influencers rocking wide-cut fishnet stockings. In 2017, Who What Wear called it the biggest trend of the season, but it was just as popular during the 1990s grunge era.

Fishnets jumped into the mainstream in the 1920s when they were primarily worn by showgirls and flappers, though they originated in the Victorian era when women weren’t allowed to show their legs. They were then adopted by 1970s punks wore them tattered with combat boots, which later evolved to become 1990s grunge.

Corduroy Was Hot

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Corduroy’s roots aren’t among rock stars, like this tattered jacket worn by The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando in 1993. The fabric actually stems all the way back the ancient Egyptian city of Al-Fustat. Corduroy was often worn by the working class in London and went all the way to Seattle’s most epic grunge bands. So what happened?

The fabric is best known for its popularity in the 1970s, but what was discarded when the trend faded in the ’80s ended up in the very ’90s thrift stores frequented by grunge’s most famous artists. Cords had a major moment in the 1990s, largely thanks to the various musicians in the grunge scene who started sporting the fashion.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

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From the pajama top and cheetah print to the plain shirt and trench coat, this image of riot grrl act Bikini Kill is the epitome of grunge style. The entire band looks like they (fashionably) crawled out of a thrift store. Leave it to Bikini Kill to epitomize grunge. They are, after all, the band actually responsible for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

When Kurt Cobain penned his most iconic single, it was with a little inspiration from Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna. Teen Spirit was the name of a popular deodorant at the time, and the singer got drunk with Cobain one night and absolutely wrecked his room. She took a Sharpie and wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the wall, and Cobain went with it.

Oversized Band Tees and Chokers

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Grunge style was rooted in non-conformity — which extended to the genders. While some grunge acts like The Red Hot Chili Peppers cross-dressed, others grunge fans adopted typically masculine styles like oversized t-shirts and cropped haircuts.

The choker was also an integral part to grunge style. Today, you’ll see them on everyone from Taylor Swift, to the Kardashians, to the people who got ripped off at Fyre Festival, but the accessory actually rose to popularity in the 1800s thanks to the Princess of Wales. They’re one of the oldest accessories around, originating as a way for ancient tribes to protect their necks.

Where Oversized Clothes Fit In Now

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Kurt Cobain popularized the oversized look with his tattered, thrift store sweaters, but this particular grunge item has made a major resurgence in fashion today and crossed over into the world of modern streetwear. Yeezy helped popularize this look with its first season. Kanye even included the same type of large, tattered knits — but he wasn’t alone.

In 2016, Raf Simons paid homage to Cobain with gem-colored tattered knits in his F/W ’16 Margiela collection. Since then, the look has been decidedly less rebellious and championed by brands like Wildfox Couture and Dropdead clothing. Basically, ripped, destroyed clothes have become mainstream which means they’re expensive, too!

Jackie O Shades

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It’s unclear exactly what made Kurt Cobain adore alien-esque, buglike glasses. Nonetheless, he loved his Jackie O shades by Christian Roths. His look has been immortalized in numerous photo shoots and really lends itself nicely to the star’s vague androgyny (seriously, these aren’t not men’s glasses, but they’re definitely women’s glasses).

This look has absolutely come full circle with a brief pit stop at Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s insane, oversized bug glasses. The look reappeared in the SS16 collection by Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent Paris. They’ve been kicking it all over Instagram and cheap sunglasses retailers ever since.

Distress That Denim

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Grunge has always been categorized by destroyed clothing and tattered denim was no exception. Seattle’s biggest rockstars would pretty much wear their jeans until they physically ripped in half. The lighter the wash and more distressed the better.

Today, silhouettes aren’t nearly as baggy. As a whole, our culture has adopted skinny jeans, but the tattered, destroyed look never faded. Luxury brands like Gucci and Versace have all put forth (extremely expensive) destroyed denim duds. Kanye ended up wearing the look to the Met Ball in 2016. Who knew something could go straight from the thrift store to one of the fanciest events in Hollywood?