Fashion

Grunge: Were we the worst dressed teenagers of all time?

On what would have been the Kurt Cobain's 50th birthday, one writer looks back on being a teenage Nirvana devotee, and wonders if he was part of the worst-dressed youth subculture that ever existed.
IMAGE Esquire UK
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Kurt Cobain didn't care much for fashion. But unwillingly, he did set the style template for generations of angst-riddled teenagers, including mine.

In all other counter culture movements, fashion has been integral. The hippies had their tie-dye and beads. The mods had their Chelsea boots and skinny lapels. The punks had their snot-encrusted leathers and painful piercings. In their time and place, each was the carefully constructed uniform of the outsider.

What set grunge apart—just like, I can admit now, much of the music that inspired it—was that it required so little effort to pull off. It nurtured the laziest of fashion choices, just like it nurtured the laziest riffs.

Eight years after Kurt Cobain's death, in 2002, grunge was still going strong in the small town I grew up in. We listened to grunge music. We played in awful grunge bands. We took grunge drugs—miserable little lumps of cannabis resin smoked in wonky joints (not the heroin, thanks—like all the most affected youths, we were middle class).

Most of all, we dressed grunge. Unwashed hoodies, natty cardigans, ripped t-shirts worn over long-sleeved sweaters, jeans that frayed and dragged at the heel of a pair of mucky (preferably Converse) sneakers. With quiet purpose, the look was modified by idly poking thumbs holes through your sleeves and letting the rip in your knees expand until it looked more like you were wearing matching denim shorts and ankle warmers. It wasn't so much anti-fashion—which would imply a deliberate defiance of fashion norms, something aiming for anarchic, or provocative—it was, more accurately, sans-fashion, an approach to clothing that seemed to grow organically out of the sort of nihilism Cobain stood for.

Not to be mistaken with the 'Nouveau Grunge' look that is the current dabbling ground of fashion brands like Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs, proper grunge wasn't about looking as smart as possible, or as extravagant, or as anti-establishment—it was about looking as scruffy, as unclean, as lacking in effort. In other words: as bad as possible (which to us, of course, meant good).

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Looking back on those days, it sometimes feels like it was a dull way to spend our formative years, when the freedom to express ourselves was at its peak.

Shouldn't we have been more adventurous with how we dressed? More creative? When you look back at the teenagers inspired by Bowie and glam rock, or the New Romantics hanging around Kahn & Bell, you can't help but realize grunge was more than a little tame by comparison, a missed opportunity to make more of a statement to the world than 'I don't wash and I don't care if you know it'.

But then, when I consider my gang of long-haired rural rebels nodding along with heartfelt empathy to 'Negative Creep' and scuffing the toes of our trainers against the back wall of Safeways, and the reasonably successful adults we have become, I think twice.

Today we dress to slot into place, to impress or appease people around us. We wear what our trades demand, and with each passing year, the money and expertise we are expected to approach it with increases. Fashion as an adult can be both a great pleasure and a expensive chore, but what it never is anymore is carefree.

Back when we only dressed for ourselves and the spirit of Kurt Cobain, it was glorious and liberating and yes—part of me still thinks—cool, to neither conform to nor subvert fashion but stick two fingers up at it altogether.

That's what Kurt did, and I suppose, what grunge was really all about—the same as all those other youth subcultures. Just with far, far worse clothes.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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