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Everything You Need To Know To Achieve The Ultimate Grunge Aesthetic

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What is grunge? Unless you’re a Gen Xer, you might be unfamiliar with the story of how flannel went high fashion.

The trend had an unlikely start during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Seattle music scene was fixing to replace glam rock and hair metal bands of the time (Poison, Warrant, Cinderella, etc…). Emerging artists like Nirvana and Pearl Jam focused strictly on their music, eschewing the makeup, teased hair, and spandex uniforms that defined rock stars at the time.

Grunge artists were perfectly content performing in cheap thrift store clothes, their hair unkempt and their faces sans eyeliner. It was a perfect match for their raw, lo-fi sound.

Ironically, their anti-fashion statement became a statement in and of itself. In 1993, then-up-and-coming designer Marc Jacobs brought grunge from the streets to the catwalk with his famous spring fashion show for Perry Ellis. The controversial collection—which swapped out loud prints and lamé dresses for beanies and steel toe boots—actually got him fired from the label.

Truth be told, Seattle musicians weren’t exactly thrilled with the explosion of grunge as a lifestyle or look.

“You never thought you were sharing your music with mainstream periodicals and fashion magazines,” said Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil during an interview. “There’s a whole lot of people out there making money by selling the idea of the Seattle scene or grunge.”

But like it or not, grunge became a cultural force. By the early 1990s, the grunge aesthetic had reached far beyond dingy clubs in the Pacific Northwest. It dominated pop culture, as evidenced by classic Gen X movies like Singles and Reality Bites and festivals like Lollapalooza.

Things finally faded out by the end of the decade when the music scene saw an unexpected pop music revival. But as history shows, trends come and go in cycles, and grunge has made a comeback in recent years. However, grunge fashion in 2021 is slightly different from the style that first made waves 30+ years ago. Check out the evolution of the look and see the current evolutions for younger generations.

The Classic ‘90s Grunge Fashion

(Photo by Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images)

Authentic grunge fashion was a statement against conformity and consumerism. For men, this meant rejecting both the status quo (9-5 businesswear) and rock star looks (mile-high hair, skintight jeans) in favor of shapeless, unassuming garments. The more used or worn out something looked, the better.

Think of Kurt Cobain’s iconic looks: ripped jeans, drab grandpa sweaters, and old band tee shirts. If he was feeling especially subversive, he’d rock out on stage in a frumpy floral housedress—the kind of frock you’d find at a garage sale or in your grandma’s dusty attic.

Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder was another poster boy for the grunge era, but his look was more fitting of a muscular lumberjack than an androgynous thrift shopper. Plaid flannel shirts, cargo shorts, and black combat boots were his standard uniform. It was just the kind of utilitarian outfit that would stand up to the wear and tear of crowd surfing.

Women often adopted the same frayed, slouchy outfits as their male counterparts. Many deliberately disguised their curves with tons of layers and loose silhouettes.

But another subset of grunge took femininity to an extreme. Take the “kinderwhore” look, adopted by female-fronted bands like Babes in Toyland and Daisy Chainsaw. Hallmarks of the style—Peter Pan collars, floral babydolls, and slips as dresses—went mainstream in the 1990s thanks to Cobain’s wife, Hole lead singer Courtney Love. The idea was to intentionally juxtapose feminist lyrics with an exaggerated, twisted take on a girly aesthetic.

And don’t forget the accessories. Schoolgirl Mary Janes and chunky heeled shoes were the requisite footwear. Either was slipped over torn tights or lace-trimmed knee socks.

In place of fancy bling, a simple choker or a single chain necklace was enough to make a statement.

Grunge Hair And Makeup Help Complete The Look

Courtney Love performs on stage in a grunge outfit
(Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock.com)

The beauty of grunge hairstyles is that they are anti-styles. Perfection is not what you’re striving for. Men in the scene were known for their messy bedheads. Look at singers like the late Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, or Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, whose faces often hid behind long, untamed locks. The ‘dos weren’t exactly fit for an office job, and that was the point.

Women took a little more creative license, either by bleaching their hair or dyeing it in a wild shade—exposed roots were perfectly acceptable. But hairstyles typically remained low-maintenance and borderline messy. A common look was to tie tresses in an effortless half updo.

Others relied on accessories like plastic barrettes and hair clips to keep things interesting.

And for those days that you really didn’t have time to comb your hair? Men and women alike would slap on a slouchy knit beanie and call it a day.

Grunge makeup trends followed a similar pattern. Some women opted for a minimal face, rejecting the impossible beauty standards sold to them in women’s magazines. Pale primer or powder was all they normally needed.

Others were knee-deep in cosmetics, but with zero aspirations for a pageant queen image. Blush and bronzers weren’t in fashion; however, black eyeliner was a must. Smudging or smearing your eye makeup wasn’t frowned upon—it was actually part of the look. A huge trend was to finish a dark eye look with a layer of Vaseline to give a worn-out, slept-in appearance.

Plum, maroon, mauve, and nude lipsticks were also having a moment. Consider it a backlash against the blinding neon shades that dominated the 1980s. One exception was Love, who wore bright red lips that she intentionally applied in a messy fashion.

The Modern Grunge Aesthetic Now

An updated look to the 90s grunge aesthetic
(Eugenia Porechenskaya/Shutterstock.com)

Like it or not, the commercialization of grunge fashion means that its latest iteration is a more polished version of what came up in the 1990s.

Today’s graphic tees and sweaters have holes because they’re intentionally distressed—not because a moth ate through your latest Goodwill find.

And yes, baggy jeans are back too (or made into a jean skirt, like Audrina Patridge). Only this time around, they’re paired with designer bags and shoes.

For an example of grunge gone Gen Z, check out some of Olivia Rodrigo’s outfits, which often include plaid, Doc Martens, and cutesy hair clips. (Love even accused the pop princess of stealing Hole’s Live Through This album artwork for a recent promo.)

But we like that some elements have stayed the same. For instance, floral dresses layered over tees are back.

To keep things from looking too prim and proper, combat boots are a must.

Another option that will never go out of style? Good old-fashioned Converse sneakers.

At the end of the day, modern grunge is different because it’s not tied to being anti-establishment. It’s no longer frowned upon by society to dress down; doing so is actually a welcomes expression of your personality. And unlike the grunge OGs who wore used clothes out of necessity, today’s attempt at effortless, carefree style actually requires some thought.

People who want to stay true to the spirit of the movement may not be happy with how things have evolved, but others are content to soak up the nostalgia or pay homage to a past era.

Variations On The Grunge Look

If you’re going for a grunge look, you’ve got quite a few options. The style has resurfaced in myriad forms to suit different tastes. Check out these different variations on the grunge aesthetic:

Soft Grunge

Think Tumblr-era Sky Ferreira: this genre marries grunge style with girly elements. Get the look with a simple skater dress, perhaps layered with an ultra oversized plaid shirt for a relaxed vibe. Hair dyed in a soft pastel hue adds another element that’s gritty-but-pretty. Want a head start on inspiration? Check out this dress and these shorts!

Punk Grunge

Some people want an edge to their style without sporting spike-covered clothes and a full-blown mohawk. Consider this look punk lite. A vintage band tee shirt, distressed denim, and fun tights (lace or fishnet) make an easy outfit. Don’t forget to finish things with chunky black leather shoes. Check out these boots for a show stopping addition to your wardrobe!

Boho Grunge

This one is for the grunge girl who has a soft spot for hippies. Long, loose dresses in floral patterns are a closet staple. You could also pair a vintage-inspired maxi skirt with a crop top and chunky knit cardigan. We love this dress and this super cute butterfly ring!

Original ’90s Grunge

A photo depicting a moment from the movie Singles
(Warner Bros. )

To keep things true to their roots, look no further than Bridget Fonda’s character Janet in Singles. She embodied Seattle’s grunge style at the time with her casual minidresses, mix-and-match plaid outfits, and dad hats. If you want to emulate her, a leather jacket is optional but recommended. This plaid skirt is simply to die for! Looking for an additional oomph to your look? This denim drawstring hoodie is perfect for outwear.

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