The 1990s, or what we understand as the 1990s, has been resurrected so many times that almost any teenager with a Vinted or Depop account and Instagram access can make a list of the most iconic clothes from the decade. It would include the Virgin Airlines sweatshirt that Lady Diana Spencer wore one day when leaving the gym, the plaid miniskirt that Alicia Silverstone donned. clueless and the metallic skirt and baby-size angora swimsuit combo that all models wore in Versace’s heyday. It would also feature Jennifer Aniston’s wedding dress from the Friends pilot, Aaliyah’s Tommy Hilfiger underwear and the modest pastel-colored cardigans the actresses wore over their spaghetti strap dresses on the red carpet.
Among all these clothes, there would also be the weathered cardigan that Kurt Cobain wore when he recorded MTV Unplugged with Nirvana. It is now owned by an anonymous buyer who bought it for $334,000 at a 2019 auction at New York auction house Julien’s. It was the second time the jersey was sold. The catalog describes it as “a mix of acrylic, mohair and lycra with a five-button closure (one button missing), with two exterior pockets, a burn hole and discoloration near the left pocket and a discoloration on the right pocket, medium size”. The seller, a Nirvana fan and owner of a racing car team, had acquired it four years earlier, also from Julien. At the time, he said he bought it not as an investment, but out of true devotion, and that the garment had “a special place in [his] heart.” After a few years of storing it in a safe in his Pennsylvania home, and probably taking note of the growing market for rock memorabilia, he decided to put it up for sale. He used the proceeds to buy one of Cobain’s guitars at the same auction.
She ended up at auction because her former owner, Jackie Farry, put her up for sale when she needed the money. Farry had been nanny to Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, and in the days following the Nirvana singer’s suicide, she was one of many people who passed through the house to comfort his wife, Courtney Love. Amid the confusion, the Hole singer removed items from cupboards to give souvenirs to friends. Farry received the cardigan. The piece was already special. In addition to the MTV concert, Cobain had worn it often during the last months of his life. He used it as a sort of security blanket. Farry had always assumed she would keep the sweater all her life and later leave it to Frances Bean in her will, but after battling cancer for more than 11 years, without adequate medical insurance, Farry saw no no choice but to sell his most valuable asset. . Before doing so, she consulted Frances Bean and Love, who she says gave her their blessing and assured her that Cobain himself would have understood. With the proceeds from the clothing — far more than she expected — she dreamed of building herself a swimming pool, but, she said, she ended up spending it all on rent and cancer treatment.
Grunge fashion is taking the world by storm
The sweater could have been acquired for a few dollars at one of Seattle’s many second-hand clothing stores in the 1990s. It was made by the Manhattan Industries brand. According to fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, quoted by rolling stone, it was probably made in the first half of the 1970s. The label bears the logo of a boat and a skier, as if to emphasize that it was the leisure clothing of a wealthy man, the favorite weekend outfit of a white collar worker who Monday through Friday wore a gray flannel suit. After 1968, the men’s cardigan is associated in the American imagination with Mr. Rogers, host of a television program for children. He puts on his own sweater, knitted by his mother, for each episode, sometimes with the buttons askew to show the children that everyone makes mistakes. This association cemented the idea of the cardigan as a social garment, the epitome of all things hygge and comfortable.
Grunge fashion was full of irony: T-shirts with corporate brand logos, worn to express rejection of consumerism; short dresses with plunging necklines reinterpreted as “kinderwhore”. But the adoption of the cardigan seems more a practical decision than a reinterpretation: it’s cold in Seattle. The cardigan was worn with dirty Converse, flannel shirts, band t-shirts, supermarket-bought plastic goggles and 1950s and 1960s jackets.
Cobain himself, who had a particular sense of style and a canonical physical beauty that is not often mentioned, as if it were incidental and not one of the factors in Nirvana’s entry into the mainstream, has helped change the idea of anti-fashion grunge. While at its origins it was more influenced by the punk rock scene, including harsher elements such as leather jackets, Cobain, who wore dresses before Harry Styles and Bad Bunny, shifted that style towards androgyny. The angora cardigan fits well into this calculated sloppiness, with a soft fabric that has a long history in the men’s wardrobe but retains traces of women’s clothing.
1960s clothes, such as acrylic flower dresses, were easily found in thrift stores in the 1990s. Then, when the media started covering Seattle’s very local and small scene, regional clothes, like woolen hats and the Pendleton flannel shirts worn in this region by loggers and other outdoor workers, along with hiking boots and thermal underwear, spread to other climates. It was funny to see the young people of Los Angeles dressed as if they were chopping firewood in Washington State. As early as 1992, the first mention of “grunge” appeared in Daily Women’s Clothing, the fashion industry magazine, as well as the words “rave” and “hip hop”. That same year, Grace Coddington and Steven Meisel codified grunge in vogue such as “flannel shirts, worn out band t-shirts, boots, and baseball caps.” Naomi Campbell and Kristen McMenamy posed in kilts, Doc Martens and, with little subtlety, Nirvana t-shirts worn over long sleeve undershirts. And in 1992, Marc Jacobs created his famous grunge collection for Perry Ellis, which got him fired and earned him a place in fashion history. From there, other designers like Anna Sui, Calvin Klein, and even Giorgio Armani appropriated the style from the subculture to sell at a premium.
The Marc Jacobs collection for Perry Ellis did not have oversized cardigans. Instead, Helena Christensen, Christy Turlington and Kate Moss wore skimpy knit cardigans with plaid dresses. Who knows if cardigans one or two sizes too big were on the designer’s radar: Jacobs readily admitted he’s never even been to Seattle.
Cobain’s cardigan would become pop culture legend a year later, in November 1993, when Unplugged was recorded in New York. For that gig, which introduced then-stratospheric MTV audiences to an acoustic version of the loudest band on the planet, Cobain mesmerized the cameras in a canonical version of the grunge uniform: a Frightwig t-shirt, grimy Converse, blue jeans and a toad. – green waistcoat with five buttons including one missing and a cigarette burn.