What Kurt Cobain Means To Those Who Don't Fit The Mold
In terms of style icons in the early 1990’s that blurred the lines between masculine and feminine, one star in particular stood out in the fashion world: Kurt Cobain. Though his time in the spotlight was quite short, with the height of his fame only lasting around 3 years, his impact on the world of fashion has lasted significantly longer, with his iconic androgynous style still being emulated today. This is quite easy to observe in archive fashion spaces, with brands such as Number (N)ine, Saint Laurent, and Undercover drawing from the late rockstar's wardrobe. In many ways Cobain’s wardrobe is made so interesting by the man himself, but this is not all of what makes it so appealing. A large part of the appeal of Kurt Cobain's wardrobe is the femininity and the inherent rebellion of this femininity, against the binary gender world, as when worn by masculine people.
Left to Right: Saint Laurent S/S16, Number (N)ine S/S-A/W03, Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis S/S93
To understand how transgressive Cobain's wardrobe was, one must first understand how rigid the ideal of American masculinity was as popularly defined in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. From popular culture alone, it is easy to see what masculinity was defined as, with men supposed to be dominant, aggressive, and to a degree, unemotional. On top of this, men could not express any inclination towards being feminine or towards being queer, lest they be called “fag” or another slur. This of course makes sense, with the United States still being in the midst of an anti-LGBT panic, fueled by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and only around 33% of Americans believing that Gay and Lesbian relationships should be legal in 1986 according to Gallup polling.
This in combination with Republicans dominating the political sphere in the 1980’s would come to define Kurt Cobain's adolescence and adulthood, with boys and men such as himself not fitting into the mainstream societal mold. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, being feminine or expressing oneself in a way that challenged the gender binary was simply unacceptable in many areas. This culture of masculinity was extremely frustrating to a young Kurt, who criticized American masculinity in an interview with John Savage, ‘I’ve always had a problem with the average macho man – they’ve always been a threat to me”. It is easy to see why Cobain felt so stifled and suffocated within this culture, and why his wardrobe would become an outlet for the expression of his dissatisfaction with it.
Cobain throughout the years
The combination of all these factors led to Cobain revolutionizing his personal wardrobe. Both the individual items and the looks that these items came together to create were quite rebellious, and doubly so for someone as famous as Kurt. Of the most iconic examples of womenswear as worn by Kurt, one in particular stands out: his Christian Roth sunglasses. Oval and oversized, these sunglasses were likely meant for older, in vogue women, before Cobain flipped that look on its head. Kurt did this by wearing them and similar sunglasses, with every sort of look under the sun, from 501s to pajamas, Cobain made them work. Although less famous, you can also see photos of the rockstar donning cat eye sunglasses, a style still associated with 1950s housewives more than anything.
Cobain wearing Christian Roth sunglasses during the 1990's
Cobain’s wardrobe transgressions go much further than just a pair of sunglasses or a few women's cardigans, however. The most obvious, and striking pieces of transgressive clothing Cobain wore were undoubtedly his dresses and nightgowns. Take for example this look from a show in Brazil in 1993, or another look from a magazine editorial featuring Dries Van Noten dresses.
Nirvana in Rio de Janeiro, 1993
Nirvana in Dries Van Noten skirts and tops
Cobain is indulging in being both masculine and feminine, with both his scraggly, unkempt facial juxtaposed with women’s lingerie. To be clear, any celebrity (with the exception of RuPual) dressing like this was unheard of, let alone one of the world's most famous rockstars. This mixing of the masculine and feminine perfectly captures Cobain rebellion against the social established rules around gender, and especially around what was expected of men. Though fashion was only one way in which this rebellion formed, it was an extremely important aspect of Cobain’s charm. From photos posed in front of slogans such as “Men don't protect you anymore” to wearing a tiara and lingerie, Cobain spoke to those alienated by society's expectations of gender, and in doing so created an iconic wardrobe. For once, there was a point of relation and connection for individuals living such a masculine society, who did not fit the mold.
Cobain wearing sparkling cat eye sunglasses in front of a sign
Putting these acts into context is critical to understanding why Kurt’s wardrobe is so important to his appeal. While others had been dressing in ways that have offended America’s more conservative sensibilities for decades before Cobain, no one had the platform and popularity that he did. Cobain was a rockstar, beloved by so many. I think an important distinction should also be drawn to the idea that Cobain was merely wearing women's clothes in a dragesque shock value manner. While drag is a mere performance of the opposite gender, in my reading, Kurt’s wearing of makeup, dresses, and all other manner of femininity is merely a reflection of himself, uninhibited by the rules as dictated by society at large. In this way Cobain’s femininity is wildly different from what popular culture had seen from a celebrity beforehand.
Cobain and Nirvana throughout the 1990's
I think a good example of the profound effect this has had on young people since the 90’s is important, and comes from my own life. When I was 10 or 11 I began wanting to dress myself, and began stealing my mother’s mohair cardigans, wearing nail polish and or smudged eyeliner, and even wearing dresses. I began to earnestly begin to really enjoy dressing how I wanted to. Often I was asked things such as “Why are you wearing that?”, or bullied for expressing myself in these feminine ways. I however had what kids and teenagers before Cobain did not have, which was a style icon who did the same things I wanted to. I was able to reference Cobain and his style, and say to myself "If he could do it, why can't I?" While not a role model by any means, Kurt Cobain and his style gave permission to kids like myself to be ourselves, uninhibited by what others had to say.
Cobain throughout the years
Now more than 30 years after Nirvana first began producing music, Cobain’s mixing of masculine and feminine fashions is as important as ever. As the backlash against gender-nonconforming people, transgender people, and the LGBT community at large intensifies, clothes and outfits that mix masculine and feminine are as rebellious and important are just as important now, as they were in the 90’s. How we dress is one of our most basic expressions of our identities in society, and to be able to do so unhindered by the unspoken rules of gender in society is to be truly free. Through the feminine aspects of Kurt Cobain's wardrobe he spoke to those who didn't fit into America’s neat and tidy rules surrounding gender, and in doing so he stood out from the crème of the crop of the 90’s grunge scene. Through his rebellion against gendered expectations, Cobain cemented himself in the lives of many.
Writer: Isaac Davis