Let me just get this off my chest before we begin: This is both a very easy and a very hard story for me to write. Easy because I don’t need to go to the library—I grew up in Seattle in the 1990s. Hard because it all kind of chaps my hide. To look at pictures of models walking down the runway with flannel tied around their waists as the New York Times informs the nation that “‘Thrifting’ is a verb in Seattle” revives that old stomach-churning feeling you get when you suddenly realize you’re a stop on a guidebook tour or an exhibit at the zoo, and everyone on the other side of the plexi-glass is pointing and waiting to see if you and the other animals might start moshing at any moment, humming a few bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to provoke you. But don’t worry, I’m not going to get all high-and-mighty with the “I-was-there” and “I-saw-that-band-for-five-dollars” stories (most of the time, my fake ID just wasn’t that good). I’m not even going to try to prove any points by citing prescient lyrics by Mudhoney. I’m just warning you that if this goes the way of salty, eye-rolling retrospect (when what we’re supposed to be doing here is celebrating fashion), that’s why.
The Seattle music scene had been alive with a raw and gritty menagerie of disaffected losers screaming out dark, powerful rock since the mid ‘80s, well before what came to be known as “grunge” exploded into the world’s consciousness with the release of Nevermind on this day in 1991. As Megan Jasper of the band Dickless and a former Sub Pop employee explained in the documentary Hype, as the ‘90s approached, “people started looking for the Seattle sound, the same way that D.C. and Boston and New York and L.A. and all of those places had this crazy little identity all of their own, Seattle started to get an identity of its own and Sub Pop decided to exploit that.” It worked, and suddenly any band on the Sub Pop label was hot, as people crammed into the clubs to escape the rain and get their frustrations out with some good old fashioned beer swilling and head banging. Not everyone had long, greasy hair and not everyone was wearing flannel. But the outside world needed a clothing style to attach to the whole scene (beer, coffee and heroin were the official foods), and there was enough of the lumberjack look to make it stick. By the early 1990s, it seemed that the national buzz had peaked and many on the local scene were looking forward to just getting back to their introverted, depressive lives. And then came Nirvana.
Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam had been signed to major labels, and their records were doing okay. Nevermind was Nirvana’s second album, and their first major label release after leaving Sub Pop for Geffen Records. It came like an avalanche, sweeping Michael Jackson out his number one spot on the Billboard charts and was certified triple platinum by February. Demand was so high that the label reportedly stopped production on its other albums just to crank out as many copies of Nevermind as it possibly could. Anyone who hadn’t been watching Seattle (as if anyone could avoid it) was certainly watching now.
The video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which seemed to be on an endless loop on MTV, sent a strong stylistic message. The very first thing you see, in fact, is a foot wearing a black Chuck Taylor high-top tapping in sync with those first three unmistakable guitar strums. The camera pans out to reveal flannel- and T-shirt-clad youth sitting in the bleachers of the dimly-lit, sepia-toned gymnasium. Kurt’s got his green and brown striped t-shirt on over his long underwear with his greasy blond hair hanging in his face, as tattooed cheerleaders root for Team Anarchy in a huge mockery of it all. But as more and more people tried to make money off the movement, the more contrived that aesthetic became, and from the release of Nevermind, the commodification progressed at lighting speed.
Marc Jacobs, a fan of grunge (the music) showed his infamous collection of grunge (the clothes) for Perry Ellis about a year later in 1992. There were military boots and skullcaps and lots of layers and greasy-looking hair. But his long johns were in fact cashmere, and the flannel tied around the girls’ waists was not really flannel but silk. Critics liked it but no one bought it, and the collection ended up getting Jacobs fired. Anna Sui also showed a grunge-inspired collection for spring ‘93 that went beyond feminizing flannel to totally sexing it up. Flirty, sheer baby doll dresses were paired with combat boots and Naomi Campbell walked the runway in loud-colored, striped bell bottoms, a knit scull cap and an army vest worn open to reveal butterfly pasties. The grunge look, Sui said, is “not about status or dressing to show off your money. It’s more about showing off what it is you feel and what you’re trying to express.”
She’s really giving it way too much credit here. Grunge in Seattle wasn’t anti-fashion like punk. It wasn’t trying to make a statement at all. Musicians went “thrifting” because they were poor. Seattle was still a small, working-class place and the tech boom hadn’t yet flooded the city with money and development. The loggers and fishermen wore flannel and long johns because they kept them warm in the winter, so that’s what you could buy at Value Village for a dollar. It was complete un-fashion—and the fact that that made it all the more fashionable was maddening as hell. Meanwhile, Vogue sent photographer Steven Meisel to the Northwest for its December 1992 issue to shoot Kristin McMenamy and Naomi Campbell sitting on fallen logs wearing combat boots and oversized Nirvana t-shirts (so much for subtlety), while department stores packed their racks to the gills with high-priced flannel shirts that Seattleites thought were absolutely hilarious. Shortly after the Marc Jacobs show, the New York Times was already pondering the too-muchness of it all, correctly predicting that the earth-shaking success of grunge was the inevitable first nail in its coffin. Cobain’s death, of course, on April 5, 1994, was the last.
Courtney Love recently admitted to WWD that she desperately regrets her actions in 1992 when she and Kurt burned the Marc Jacobs grunge wear that the designer had sent them as a gift. “We were punkers,” she said. “We didn’t like that kind of thing.” The former queen of the thrift store baby doll now carries her Birkin bag like a badge of honor, and much like the town she lived in (but isn’t from), has developed a sophisticated appreciation for high fashion. Seattle is a pretty stylish place now. Sure, sandal-and-sock sightings do occur (Tevas with wool hiking socks, not the trendier nylon anklet with stiletto variety), but they are the exception rather than the rule. But on the other hand, our thrift stores are still full of flannel, and people still buy it. Grunge may be dead, but the winters are still wet and cold. —Cody Bay
To hear lots more Seattleites and musicians bitch about how the success of grunge and all the attention really pissed them off, Hype is truly a must-see. It’s also illuminating and entertaining with some really great interviews and footage of early shows.
Photos: Oh well, whatever, Nevermind. Nirvana photographed by Charles Petersen, the world’s greatest rock photographer. Visit his site and buy his work.Vogue Dec. 1992 Kristen McMenamy and Nadja Auermann in “Grunge and Glory” photographed by Steven Meisel (found on FuckYeahStevenMeisel);