Thrifted, holey, unwashed, unbranded and missmatched, defined the late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s wardrobe. When he threw together his outfits there was no “styling” involved – other than the alleged compulsive changing of one dirty t-shirt for another as he layered up, self-conscious of his scrawny frame. Plaid shirts, one of his trademarks, were a typical cold weather staple in Cobain’s native Seattle, t-shirts were bought at second-hand stores, and one pair of jeans would set him up for years. His hair-dye experiments, radioactive-yellow and slime-green, came courtesy of the heavily coloured soft drink Kool Aid.
An antidote to the sartorially self-aggrandising studs, leather and big hair of the rock stars that preceded Nirvana, Cobain’s humble and subtle downtrodden-punk look, was dubbed grunge and quickly became the uniform by which to identify the growing legions of Nirvana devotees. It alarmed Cobain that some of these fans crossed over with cock-rock mega group Guns N’ Roses fans, a band whose ethos Cobain detested, “Ever since the beginning of rock and roll, there's been an Axl Rose,” he said.
Having sparred with Axl Rose at MTV’s 1992 Video Music Awards when Rose asked Cobain, "Why don't you shut your bitch up?" referring to Cobain’s wife Courtney Love, one of his most pointedly provocative outfits was the yellow high-collared ball gown he wore to the 1994 MTV Headbanger’s ball. It was chosen to unsettle the MTV zeitgeist – a slim, attractive man in a dress who comfortably joked that his band mate (Dave Ghrol) didn’t bring him a corsage, forced the average MTV viewer to expose and confront their own prejudices.
As Cobain’s celebrity grew, his look, at one time a rebellious swerve from the status quo, become de rigueur as a generation emulated him. One such fan was a young Marc Jacobs, at the time working as a designer for Perry Ellis. His S/S93 collection was inspired by grunge and included oversized plaid shirts, raggedy crochet, and thermals re-imagined in luxe fabrics, much to the repulsion of Cobain and Love who burned the entire collection, which was sent to them by Jacobs.
“Marc sent me and Kurt his entire Perry Ellis Grunge collection. Do you know what we did with it? We burned it. We were punkers – we didn’t like that kind of thing.” Courtney Love speaking to WWD in 2010. As for Marc Jacobs, he found himself promptly fired by his employer Perry Ellis, leaving him free to set up his eponymous label.
Text by Laura Havlin