PHOTO BY Pinterest

#Grunge Culture: Lost to the Nineties Because of Tumblr?


Ripped skinny jeans, chain-link fences, and taking pictures of battered Converse sneakers. These are some of the most common things one would see if they just searched for the "Tumblr grunge aesthetic" on Pinterest or Google. But does it live up to the revolutionary fame of its nineties predecessor?

As someone who was always drawn to more unconventional fashion, I was immediately hooked on this aesthetic. In the months that followed redoing my wardrobe to achieve this "grunge" style, I scrolled through TikTok to get some inspiration for my outfits. What I found, however, was more worthwhile than any of that.

It was this TikTok that sparked my curiosity. In it, the user shows the audience what "real grunge" is, complete with pictures of Kurt Cobain and oversized shirts. This confused me at first. Was the fashion sense I was choosing to follow not this badass aesthetic, but instead a ripoff of a bigger nineties movement?

Surprisingly little yielded from the search for "real grunge." There's limited research on the comparison between the current Tumblr style and the famous nineties movement, but the striking differences I did discover between the two were eye-opening.

One may ask, how far removed is this modern image from the grunge movement that began in the nineties? What's the harm in this subculture of such a noteworthy style? To that I say, the problem isn't the new fashion; the problem is calling it grunge. By doing so, it takes away what grunge fashion once stood for: a way for people who didn't have access to designer clothes or trendy accessories to become included in mainstream fashion.

The History of Grunge Culture

Before grunge became a lifestyle, it was a music genre. Originating in Seattle, Washington, around the mid-1980s, this music drew influence from punk rock and heavy metal sounds. Heavy baselines, memorable riffs, and abrasive electric guitars quickly became attached to the genre long before the bands of Nirvana and Pearl Jam popularized it.

With those bands and more came its sudden recognition. The term "grunge" was first coined as a joke, since these artists described their music in self-deprecating terms. Yet, as this unique sound continued to rise and dominate the charts, the name stuck.

The grunge sound also paved the way for a culture founded on rebelliousness and nonconformity. It was characterized by loud music, a disobedient spirit, and a defiance unseen since hippie culture in the 1960s— all things that clashed greatly with the clean-cut image of the nineties. Those part of the movement embraced these qualities with pride.

Participants in the movement were viewed as radical, since they emphasized discussing the political and social issues of the world. Tackling topics both in and out of their music, such as toxic masculinity, suicide, and addiction, shocked people but resonated greatly with teenagers across the nation, who supported rather than shunned this authenticity.

This overly conscious view of the world crept into an anti-authoritarian sort of mindset, which translated into how those involved in the grunge movement presented themselves. Messy hair, oversized flannel shirts, baggy pants— this look was everything mainstream fashion hated, and that's what was revolutionary about it.

Grunge Fashion (1990s)

Pioneered by icons of the time like Winona Ryder and Drew Barrymore, the grunge look suddenly wasn't just another unattainable mainstream fashion look. Now, anyone could achieve it with a pair of ripped jeans and an oversized T-shirt. It became trendy while also remaining accessible— something most fashions, even in our current age, have struggled to do.

With the movement's anti-authoritarian attitude came a spirit of anti-capitalism. One didn't need to spend hundreds of dollars to participate in the trend; a thrifted flannel would do just fine. This inadvertently made the culture all the more sustainable in a world where we cycle through clothes the moment they've lost their appeal.

This was the true beauty of the grunge movement: it was inclusive, it was sustainable, and it was a big protest to the capitalists of society who convinced people that they had to spend heaps of money in order to achieve a certain appearance. That being said, these traits were soon lost with the revival of the style.

The Tumblr Grunge Revival

One could argue that 2014 was the year for Tumblr. The online blogging site went from a place where funny textposts were born to a place where "aesthetic" pictures were posted. Soon, subcultures of fashion emerged from the latter side, oftentimes targeting a specific niche, like pastel colors for the "soft girl aesthetic."

By far one of the most popular of these trends was the "Tumblr grunge aesthetic." Complete with alternative band T-shirts and ripped skinny jeans, it held no resemblance to its 90s counterpart. The only shared similarity was the iconic Nirvana T-shirt, but even that's a stretch.

Unkempt, baggy clothes were replaced with miniskirts and chains. Political and social awareness soon morphed into edgy song lyrics and "deep" quotes. Once the symbol for disobedience and change, grunge fashion (and therefore culture) was seen as nothing but a Tumblr trend.

Old trends passed and new ones arose. Gone were the days of the "Tumblr softgirl," replaced with the more current "cottagecore" or "baddie" aesthetic. "Tumblr grunge" too soon faded into irrelevance, Doc Martins shoved away in closets and fishnet tights stuffed back in drawers.

Initially, that seemed to be the last of the trend, but TikTok's arrival soon proved that it hadn't been put to rest quite yet.

TikTok led to a resurgence in this fashion, with teenagers and young adults alike trying to mimic the old Tumblr style. It exploded in popularity, once again being thrust into the mainstream. TikTokers would discuss their most recent clothing hauls, purchasing obscene amounts of clothing without regard to the high costs.

That's where the problem lies: the expensive price tag. Grunge fashion was all about finding the most obscure items of clothing that trends at the time would likely scoff at, i.e. clothes that weren't made to look expensive and flashy.

Yet this new grunge look seems to emphasize these shiny new pieces of fashion. Inspiration can be found from 90s grunge (as proven through the flannel accents and chunky shoes) but that's where the similarities begin and end. Calling this style "grunge" is not only inaccurate, but directly contradicts what the movement challenged: consumer culture.

What This Means

Therein lies the dangers of the "Tumblr grunge" look. Instead of promoting sustainability, or the idea that thrifting clothes is just as good as buying them new, this fashion trend led back into the main thing grunge culture tried to protest: capitalism. It takes away this inclusive space for people to participate in a trend that stood for much more than being "edgy" or "disobedient."

This doesn't mean that this new subculture is bad; it's just a far cry from what grunge once was, and thus should not be referred to in the same manner as its nineties predecessor. A clear distinction should be made, because the values of the original grunge culture are now being drowned out by our materialistic society.

Will this newfound understanding of the movement change this trend? Likely not, but at the very least this exposé will make people aware of its history. It's because of this new perspective that I now thrift many of my clothes instead of trying to spend money on the newest fashion pieces. We can all learn a thing or two from the grunge mindset, and embody the revolutionary spirit it carried with it in the nineties.

Sevasti Karonis
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Sevasti "Seva" Karonis is an aspiring writer from New York, NY seeking to change the world one story at a time. When she's not writing, she can be found playing the guitar, listening to some Queen, or scrolling through Pinterest.