90s Grunge Fashion Tips and Music Guide

90s grunge fashion basics
| Style > Alternative Style

These authentic 90s grunge fashion tips are based on what people wore the first time round. Check out our grunge music guide, too.

Grunge fashion was led by music, poverty, and social alienation. After a quick scoot through grunge music history we pile into the key elements of authentic 90s grunge fashion and how it applies today. If you’re interested in a cool grunge look, the chances are that you’re not desperate to jump on a style bandwagon. You know your grunge roots, and you’ve no intention of paying £400 for silk army pants just because a glossy magazine told you that was the way to go. Grunge is just a good style for poor people who love music.

90s Grunge Fashion Tips

A flowery dress and Doc Martens is the perfect grunge outfit. The dress should end above the knee, but hey – no rules.

If you feel connected to either 90s grunge or Grunge Luxe, then learn the basics, get inspired and take the style in your own direction. The basics – are the boots, the variety of lace and fishnet tights, the flannel shirts and the vintage rock tees. The attitude? No one can teach true grunge-rock individuality. Some people will prefer the ‘no make-up’ look; others may go for gothic, black-rimmed eyes. Then there’’s jewellery and accessories, nail varnish and lipsticks (such as dark plums, reds and purples) and hair (nothing too styled, obviously). From babydoll dresses teamed with Doc Martens to a pair of patterned leggings with a tee and crucifix necklace, think androgynous, think rock ‘n’ roll, think attitude, independence and individuality.

The true key to grunge style? No one remembers the person who was just like everyone else, so get inspired by music, by photography, by film, experiment, and be yourself.

Flowery cotton dresses rock. Aesthetic grunge encourages you to wear flowery frocks whatever gender you are. But only with heavy combat boots or weathered sneakers or Doc Martens.

‘Kinderwhore’ babydoll dresses with Peter Pan collars. There’s a mini-controversy over who started the babydoll dress with a Peter Pan collar trend. Was it Kat Bjelland or Courtney Love? Either way, a subgenre of the grunge look is Kinderwhore fashion.

Layers of tops are essential. Good for braving the elements / outdoor gigs. Good for paying less heating bills.

Flannel shirts were popular Grunge attire regardless of gender – mainly because flannel was popular in Seattle as outdoor wear.

Anything plaid became accepted grunge style. Plaid flannel shirts. Long baggy plaid shorts. Tartan kilts were also good for any gender.

Cardigans and very baggy jumpers. Chunky knit cardigans with old leather buttons were everywhere. Holes weren’t just for jeans – every grunge cardigan or sweater ended up with a hole in it for you to put your thumb into so it doubled up as a pair of fingerless mittens.

Ripped denim. Ripped mainly because grunge kids were anti high-fashion and wore their clothes half to death. Once grunge style became popular and mainstream, people would buy their jeans and rip them in a bit before wearing them to get the grunge look. A pale, half-dead stonewashed denim was ideal for jeans.

Baggy clothes were essential for all. No skinny fit. Baggy jeans only. And baggy worked well with the layers of tops. Grunge clothes never fitted because you’d just wear something you’d found in a bin, bought very cheaply, or borrowed off a friend and forgotten to give back.

Charity shop / thrift store clothes. With the recession, we’ll probably see a new mutation of grunge as people start dressing solely from charity shops, and start creating combinations of daywear that Primark never intended in all its years.

Hoodies. Of course. How could we not mention hooded tops! You could get thin hooded tops to stick under long-sleeved tees. Or fat hoodies to wear on top of all your other layers, preferably with a really baggy cardigan over the top.

Hair was ideally lank, or stiff with yesterday’s sweat from a gig. Dye jobs were common, especially bleached hair, but they were irregular – having your roots show for anything up to three inches was common in grunge style. As Hole singer Courtney Love testified in interviews, her rocking layered haircut was mostly achieved by holding her cigarette to close to her hair ends and burning it off by mistake. The word we are looking for is unkempt.

Combat boots. Or worn old high top sneakers or baseball boots. Or Doc Martens.

Accessories – Beanie hats. Or leather thongs tied round your wrists. Grunge fashion wasn’t huge on accessories, unless it was tattoos, piercings and lots of dangly things round the wrist.

Essentially, grunge was/is/shall be again a non-style created by poor kids who wanted to reject the commodification of their world.

Getting into grunge fashion is, even today, easy and cheap. No-one sells cardigans or plaid or flannel for huge amounts on eBay – it’s all still stuff you can root around and find in second hand stores, or that people want to throw away.

However, be aware that – by trawling the second hand shops in the new millenium – you may actually find yourself part of a new wave grunge. Entirely by accident. Just because you have the same anti-commercial ethos, but different things are now available in the shops. Don’t worry. Your slightly different look will probably still be grunge. There may be people out there doing the same as you, creating a new, organic style purely by chance.

And with grunge it was always about the gigs, in the end. Let music, poverty and social alienation lead the way, and we’ll all shuffle forward into a Brave New Grunge!

90s grunge makeup looks and tutorials

So what was early grunge makeup like? You wore it, or didn’t. If you didn’t, it was because you didn’t care. And that was fine. If you did, you weren’t going for a daytime makeup look. You went for night makeup, and wore it all the time – often not washing it off before the next day. That’s usually how how the ‘smoky eye look’ associated with grunge came about – heavy mascara running and smearing the next day, and being left on. Similarly, bright red lipstick was strongly but casually applied, and often ended up a little smeared by the end of the night. This was not the age of collagen-enhancing lotions and beauty skincare regimes.

For a 90s grunge makeup look, aim for liberal use of mascara, a heavy red lipstick, and not much else. For a modern take, you can add your choice of eyeshadow – something neutral like dark grey or brown, or red eyeshadow is a strong look that’s in keeping with the general grunge ethos of shunning beauty standards.

Useful 90s grunge makeup tutorials:

History of 90s grunge fashion

Behind every fashion trend there is a story…

There’’s something about the style that emerged out of the Seattle music scene of the mid 1980s that gives it an edge that it arguably shouldn’’t have. After all, grunge fashion – which had its roots in grunge rock – was born out of the fact that its followers were trying to do just the opposite of what the word ‘fashion’ suggests.

Grunge fashion in the late 80s and early 90s

The original grunge musicians and fans were rebelling against a conformity they felt boxed-in by. The flannel shirts, undyed hair roots, ripped jeans, ripped tights and battered boots were thrown together with anything but the intention of appearing on the forefront of a new fashion craze. What is now viewed as a bona fide fashion was the result of a perceived laziness and a life far more concerned with music than appearances. Music journalist Charles R. Cross summed it up: “Kurt Cobain was just too lazy to shampoo”.

Why did ‘unkempt’ become so popular in the late 80s and early 90s? Conversely to the contrasting trends of the hip-hop music scene of the time – the prevalence of flashy sportswear, the want for flashy chains and gold rings – early grunge was a trend laid back enough to suggest the wearer had not tried at all, even though today it is a trend that we now see in magazines and sold on the high street. Fashion names like Balmain and Religion have aimed to appropriate, tweak and evolve a style that was originally very random, very spontaneous and – generally – very unfashionable.

Grunge fashion was essentially a mix of punk ethic and outdoor wear. Hard, durable fabrics didn’t cost much (so it didn’t matter if your friend stole them off you) and you could wear them for years. Grunge kids usually did – that’s why holes in clothes started becoming a part of grunge fashion. The punk influence behind grunge style makes sense – punk has always been anti-establishment, and initially it wasn’t expensive.

Why the outdoor wear? Well, it’s not overly warm in Seattle, where grunge originated. And outdoor wear is cheap. And it’s function over form, so it was a good way to retaliate against the futuristic (hey, it seemed that way at the time) high fashion of eighties glamour pop. And if you wear it right, ie. A lot, and preferably in the rain, or covering yourself with beer at every gig and washing infrequently, you can end up looking a step or two above homeless. Essentially, the grunge look grew organically – there was no attempt to consciously come up with a style. The grunge look just grew into itself. Music journo Charles R. Cross said, “Kurt Cobain was just too lazy to shampoo,” and there may have been some truth in that. Seattle grunge label Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman said, “[Grunge clothing] is cheap, it’s durable, and it’s kind of timeless. It also runs against the grain of the whole flashy aesthetic that existed in the 80’s.”

Grunge clothing and hair was generally unkempt. Men shaved infrequently and tended to go for long hair. If they dyed their hair – and this goes for the women too – they didn’t dye it too often – hence dyed roots being part of the grunge look. Then again, dyeing your hair blonde takes effort and is, for some, too much of a nod towards trying to better your appearance and ascribing to a commercial sense of beauty, so a lot people had natural hair and left it be to grow and do its own thing, only occasionally getting a friend to hack at it with blunt scissors when feeling pissed / maudlin / strung out. Dreds were not uncommon, though less so in America.

Find out more about grunge fashion and music in the 80s and 90s on Mookychick.

Modern grunge fashion and looking ahead

Today, grunge fashion takes a different angle. Stylists don’’t buy clothes from charity shops or retrieve them from bins to dress models, actresses and stars. Grunge style has been reinvented. It’s resurfaced incorporating glamorous elements – more lace, more glitter and more decoration. Jeans are deliberately distressed and t-shirts are deliberately ripped, and their pre-sale damaged condition often means they cost more. Looking like an impoverished rock musician still wasted from last night’’s gig can be an expensive business these days. ‘Grunge Luxe’ means a leather jacket or a slashed shirt can now sell for hundreds; even thousands.

The fashion imprint left by the original grunge dressers – from Kat Bjelland (Babes in Toyland) and Courtney Love (Hole) in their kinderwhore glory to (of course) the one-step-from-homeless scruffy style of Nirvana and Pearl Jam – is one not forgotten. From the stage to the fashion frontline, models from Agyness Deyn to Georgia May Jagger, Pixie Geldof to Alice Dellal have continued to raise awareness of the trend today. Today, the idea of sticking a finger or two up at conformity has become cool.

Without delving too deeply into social comment, the original ethos of grunge style will always remain. There will always be those who are too poor to keep up with fashion trends and have no desire to do so. Regardless of how Grunge Luxe will evolve, there are certain classic grunge basics that will never go away. As to how the non high-fashion grunge look changes? It really depends on what people who’ve chosen to drop out start finding in their charity shops and hungover friends’ houses, deep down behind the sofa…

History of grunge music

Grunge was a form of alternative rock that seeped out of Washington (mainly Seattle) in the mid 1980s. It was a kind of hybrid between punk, metal and indie rock. As with hardcore punk, grunge lyrics focused heavily on apathy, social alienation, a need for freedom and a feeling of being trapped. The sound was big on a sludgy, distorted electric guitar with high levels of fuzz and feedback. It was a pretty raw, stripped-down sound, and could either churn out mosh-stomper stagedive classics like Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” or the mournful loss of “Pennyroyal Tea” by the kings of grunge, Nirvana.

Grunge became as big as Gojiro and achieved worldwide fame by the mid nineties thanks to two albums: “Nevermind” (Nirvana) and “Ten” (Pearl Jam). It wasn’t just a boy’s club – Hole, L7, and Babes in Toyland were major indie groups with major followings. Hole made some awesome music, and when lead singer Courtney Love shacked up with Kurt Cobain they were verily the King and Queen of Grunge.

However, grunge was anti-commerce, anti-fame, anti-celebrity. Many grunge musicians were uncomfortable with the genre’s popularity and wanted to keep things simple and local – garage bands and jamming were key to grunge, and grunge gigs were straightforward affairs. No huge lighting shows, no backing dancers, no high fashion. Grunge bands weren’t choreographed performers. Robbie Williams might have sung “Let me entertain you”, but Kurt Cobain spoke for a disenfranchised generation when he sang “Here we are now, entertain us”. Grunge gigs were just a lot of energy, both onstage and in the mosh pit. And, er, slightly less energy at the back near the bar.

Grunge bands to check out

  • Hole
  • Babes in Toyland
  • Nirvana
  • Mudhoney (Touch Me I’m Sick is one of the best grunge tracks ever)
  • L7
  • Pearl Jam
  • Alice in Chains

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