Remember when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain defined “grunge” without even trying?
It was November 18, 1993, and Nirvana was in New York to tape what would become one of the most historic acoustic sets ever captured on film for “MTV Unplugged.”
By that time, the American grunge band was on its way to becoming the biggest music act of the decade — though it sure did not look it.
Nirvana was formed in 1987 by Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic, with drummer Dave Grohl, now of the Foo Fighters, joining in 1990. For most of their short career as a band, they wore distressed jeans and tattered sweaters, flannel shirts and Converse sneakers. Their scruffy style was the sartorial expression of the music they made: gritty, soulful and devoid of preppy-style conventions.
The MTV concert was no exception. Grohl wore a nerdy turtleneck and a ponytail, Novoselic a ratty t-shirt and a borrowed bass. But it was Cobain’s relaxed look and disheveled hair that most of us who were smelling like teen spirit back then still remember pretty vividly today.
Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the influential rock band Nirvana, committed suicide at his home in Seattle on April 5, 1994. Click through to see photos from his career. Credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty images
In a music landscape shaped by the ballads of Phil Collins, Michael Bolton and Simply Red, and the vocals of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, Nirvana’s ascent from unknown Pacific Northwest group to romanticized heroes of teen angst was indeed slightly unorthodox. Whether or not Cobain expected it, the band turned alternative into mainstream, underground into “overground” — and this extended beyond music.
Cobain’s ratty uniforms came to define the aesthetics of 1990s grunge, a fashion trend that designer Jean Paul Gaultier described in a 1993 Vogue interview as “nothing more than the way we dress when we have no money.” That rang especially true for the singer.
Having grown up in a blue-collar family in Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain had learned to layer up to keep warm and to wear things for as long as possible before replacing them — something that stayed with him through his brief adulthood. The cardigan, like many other of his clothes, was not part of a performative persona, but rather a necessity, chosen for no other reason than its practical use.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images
The reason for Cobain’s enduring influence lies in what made him special in the first place: his ability to strip away the artifice and share something real. The subtlety of the MTV Unplugged performance proved that beautifully.
And, his thrift-store cardigan made it all the more memorable.