A History of Counterculture: Grunge

You’ve heard of grunge fashion, but how much do you really know about the grunge movement?

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From poodle skirts to Instaglam, and cloche hats to bell bottoms, the history of mainstream fashion is well-known to the everyday fashionista. But not all aspects of fashion are mainstream. This semester, I’ll be exploring the history of counterculture movements – and how they differ from the fashion history you already know.

This week, I’ll be talking about a subculture that emerged in the mid-1980s. While the world was listening to commercial, stylized hair metal, the early grunge rockers were wearing flannels and singing about their feelings of disaffectedness and failure. 

Grunge’s Influences

Grunge first emerged in Seattle, a city that wasn’t yet known for its music scene. Alternative musicians from Evergreen State College and the University of Washington created music with a grinding, unfinished sound influenced by punk and metal, that was strongly affected by their lack of prestige or technical tools. 

In contrast with the highly produced, manufactured music and styles of the mainstream, grunge was focused on ‘ugliness’ – caused both by the distortion of the musical recordings and the darker subject matters they addressed. Unlike the energetic rejection of social norms of the earlier punk movement, grunge focused on themes of nihilism, depression, betrayal, and resignation. Singers of grunge rock wanted listeners to look inside themselves to examine the hidden anguish of society. 

Grunge Fashion

Just as grunge music was all about challenging the hedonistic, highly manufactured aspects of pop and glam music, grunge fashion was all about rejecting fashion and conformity through style. Its greatest stars popularized thrift shopping and working-class styles like flannel shirts, cracked leather jackets, and work boots, partially due to their own humble backgrounds. It was thought that the mundane fashion choices represented the authenticity of the artists — that they would perform in the same clothes they wore every day. 


Hair and makeup looks in the grunge era were very minimal. Men and women alike wore unkempt, tousled hair, with either short crops to deny their sex appeal, or long to hide their faces as they sang about their innermost thoughts. Parallel to this was another aesthetic, in which women would wear highly sexualized clothing and heavy makeup with dark eyeliner in contrast to their ungroomed peers. 


Grunge Culture’s Impact

Today, grunge’s most noticeable impact is its influence on fashion. Utilitarian, rugged styles like flannels, Doc Marten boots, and loose floral dresses have come back into vogue several times since they heyday of grunge, and have become everyday staples for many fashion-forward individuals regardless of their status in society. 

However, grunge also had an important impact on popular culture outside of fashion – because grunge musicians made their honesty and discontentment so relatable and desirable, it brought on a new era of pop culture in which celebrities are expected to look and act like regular people and be outspoken about social issues. This remains the case today.



Are you interested in the moody, the withdrawn, or the idiosyncratic? What countercultures do you find most interesting? Let us know in the comments below.

1 thought on “A History of Counterculture: Grunge”

  1. While I have no issue with the written content, I think the images presented in this article are the most watered-down Instagram interpretations of Grunge “fashion” I have ever seen. Grunge as interpreted today takes all the glamorous elements from.the 90s, and completely ignores the fact it was actually a very modest mode of dressing. For inspo, here are some original Hot Tuna ads from 1995 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8b2c9b16df713fa3db31729533d021c6f4ccca6284c88b2bccf227dba1a39ce0.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/eeffee285b8e376116faa18866d123f877281b9f1c4a9e1ea9e762fd938ee469.jpg : https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/50a7d09a792e5951ff919e8a7c04a8249dd1b34aea349dec6e141ee1d66e0dff.jpg


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