- Words by Mr Richard Benson
In the 20 years since his death, Mr Kurt Cobain has become a global icon for those who feel alienated, marginalised or just plain bored by the mainstream, but in life, however, his demeanour seemed the very antithesis of an international figurehead or superstar. Diffident, ungroomed and dressed in workwear and thrift-store clothing, he certainly looked an unlikely challenger to the dominant, poodle-permed pomp rockers of the 1980s, like, say, Guns N' Roses or Def Leppard. Paradoxically, though, it was that very downbeatness that made him so sympathetic and appealing. The 1980s brash, showy, materialism had left many young people feeling disenchanted by the time Nirvana began to break through at the end of the decade, and there was already a huge audience just waiting for such an antihero to come along.
Those early audiences instinctively recognised the significance of Mr Cobain's style, just as he himself was aware of clothing's power to make statements. As a teenage punk in a small town in Washington State, he had been a fan of the Sex Pistols, who had been dressed by Ms Vivienne Westwood and managed by that arch semiotician Mr Malcolm McLaren. Moving to nearby Seattle for its burgeoning punk/ hardcore scene, he found others with similar ideas, and their choice of a grungy, sometimes playful workwear/ thrift look was not quite accidental. What became known as the grunge look implied a rejection of conservative values and, in its androgyny (long hair for men, dresses with heavy boots for girls) a hostility to gender stereotypes. According to the writer Ms Amy Raphael, who was close to Mr Cobain and his wife Ms Courtney Love, the couple "deliberately worked that look together in Seattle" and "knew what they were doing" in using it to push alternative values in the media that covered their music.
What Mr Cobain was doing in adopting this style and music was expressing radical views and feelings that developed out of his many unhappy childhood experiences. He had grown up in a dysfunctional, divorced family, and felt unusual and isolated at school. One of his friends was gay, and for this young Mr Cobain himself was bullied. "I knew I was different," he told an interviewer later. "I thought I might be gay or something because I couldn't identify with any of the guys at all. None of them liked art or music. They just wanted to fight and get laid. It gave me this real hatred for the average American macho male." Remember these were the Reagan-Bush years, 15 years before the metrosexual, a time when in Middle America, even two straight men dancing together could be hounded out of a nightclub. Mr Cobain's vocal opposition to sexism, racism and homophobia as Nirvana became famous would help change those entrenched attitudes, and the eyeliner, long hair and dresses he wore were as much a part of that opposition as his interviews and benefit gigs.
Diffident, ungroomed and dressed in workwear and thrift-store clothing he looked an unlikely challenger to the dominant pomp rockers of the 1980s... but it was that very downbeatness that made him so sympathetic and appealing
In 1991, in the midst of a severe economic recession that challenged the smug complacency of the previous decade, Nevermind thrust Nirvana noisily into the mainstream. At the same time Mr Douglas Coupland published Generation X, a novel about a generation of kids who had given up on now-unachievable career success and chosen instead alternative lifestyles based on their own values. Rolling Stone magazine framed Mr Cobain as the spokesman for Gen X, and Mr Marc Jacobs used him and Seattle as the inspiration for one of the most famous collections in fashion history, namely his SS93 grunge collection for Perry Ellis. (Unconfirmed reports say that after the collection failed to sell, Mr Jacobs posted all the original samples to Mr Cobain and Ms Love, who then promptly burned them).
Looking back, his elevation seems inevitable. "He looked like a model," says Ms Raphael. "He was startlingly handsome, he had a good body, and although he didn't understand the fashion icon thing, he did know how to dress. Most important was the ennui. Models put it on, but his ennui was real and genuine, and people felt it."
He was, of course, profoundly uncomfortable with his celebrity, and increasingly disappointed that parts of his audience ignored his messages about politics and gender. Suffering from a serious drug dependency, he killed himself at his home in Seattle in April 1994. At the time some British commentators suggested his work and death would ultimately be meaningless, but they were wrong. Nirvana opened up the mainstream media to "alternative" or "indie" music like no act before or since. More importantly Mr Cobain enabled the marginalised to make their voices heard, and demonstrated the size and power of their constituency as no one had since at least the 1960s.
He can also be credited with helping to usher in a more open notion of masculinity, and in this, as in his other achievements, his unique sense of style was of crucial importance. Those flannel shirts, torn jeans and perfectly sloppy cardigans may have looked like shabby make-do gardening gear to the establishment, but to the alienated, marginalised and bored their message was clear and uplifting. "Come as you are," they said. And boy, did the people come.