Walking into an Urban Outfitters has lately been like stepping into a time warp. The over-abundance of plaid, the old Laura Ashley prairie dresses, the canvas sneakers: My fourth-grade self would have been pretty stylin' in 2009.
This is distressing--perhaps irrationally so. After all, I know fashion is cyclical, and I guess I am finally old enough to witness my childhood and adolescent wardrobes being revived from the dead and worn by those who have no recollection of their first appearance and don't understand their cultural, ideological importance. (Now I know how my mom felt when I dug out her old clothes.)
It's like walking into the closet of my late childhood, or at least what I wanted my closet to be. These are my old clothes: I still go back to the old '90s uniform of worn-in jeans, old henley, flannel and work boots to slack around. It's an ensemble that is comforting. It reminds me of when I idolized my older sister during her teenage grunge phase, and it conjures photos of my parents in the early '70s and my grandparents, who grew up working farms in the rural south. Wearing a knit cap with a floral dress and thermal leggings in the winter or fall isn't just mimicking Kurt Cobain, to me it's also borrowing from my foremothers who threw on their daddy's old shirts over their dresses when it started to get chilly.
Of course, it's not like this is the first time history, counter-culture, subculture and anti-fashion have been mined and commodified for mass-market consumption. As funny as I find it to walk into Urban Outfitters and see a workshirt I know came from a thrift store in upstate New York priced at $50, that is nothing compared to the $1,200 cashmere long johns designed by Marc Jacobs in the early '90s. Even Coco Chanel was criticized for dressing like a "poor person." In Sex and Suits, Art historian Anne Hollandar has stated that antifashion is just the next fashion a little too soon. For the last few years high-end designers have been going grunge again as well, from Hedi Slimane's 2005 Kurt Cobain tribute collection to whenever anyone uses plaid. The recession has had everyone screaming "grunge revival!" any time one of the tabloid "it" girls leaves her house in torn tights.
Personal relationships to clothing can be tricky. Our clothing is our first level of communication with and protection from the rest of the world. What my clothes mean to me and what I want them to communicate can be completely different than what they say to the people who have to look at me in them. It all depends on context, my context of growing up in a southern, left, middle class, suburban household (something that held enough contradiction and conflict) usually means I interpret things differently than a lot of my peers. My mother encouraged, and often even required that I understand the history and heritage of anything I was interested in, from my seven year old obsession with Jesus Christ Superstar (she handed me a bible) to piercing (I got to learn about both tribal customs and infection!) to all types of fashion and fashion history (Poiret paper dolls at six years old and so much more). At this point I don't know if I became interested in fashion because my mother introduced me to it, or if it was an interest that I had and she just encouraged me to completely engage in it. I know I was special case, a clotheshorse at five years old, but in most of my childhood memories-even some of the earliest-- I remember what I and everyone else was wearing.
So grunge is back and it tugs at my heartstrings in a variety of ways. It's handy that a few years ago I never got around to taking up some of the old oversized t-shirts I had stolen from my big sister as a teenager, with the intention of cutting them into bits and "remaking" them and after years of skinny jeans its nice to be able to breath in a pair of "boyfriend" jeans (although, I do find that moniker troubling as well!). Again this just reflects the nature of fashion, although usually fashionable shapes and silhouettes change gradually, when a certain style becomes too extreme or just lasts too long the collective reaction is too tuck in what had been pulled out, raise what had been lowered, belt what had been loose, and cover what had been bare. And everything eventually comes back into style. I understand the appeal of thrifty dressing in times of economic woes, the original grunge movement was an antifashion reaction to the opulent ways of Reganomics and the reality of its failures, and our economy stinks right now.
The grunge look of the early 90s was an amalgam of former fashion, but it wasn't the same as the post modern hodge pogde of the 80s. Musically, grunge was the next logical step after punk. Grunge fashion however, differed from punk fashion. Punk fashion is agressive, not only a rejection of high fashion, but an attack against it. The basic stylistic elements of grunge, on the other hand, borrows from people who have never been able to participate in the fashion system. People who shop at thrift stores because they have experienced poverty, not because they are looking for a vintage treasure. Grunge is also distinctly American in a way that punk is not- but that is a subject for a different essay. Like all anti-style movements grunge had substyles--Courtney Love's kinderwhore look comes to mind--that were more aggressive and extreme, but they still worked off the same principles of re purposing old clothes, wearing something until it fell of your body, and rejecting the mainstream fashion system buy not participating in it. And it too becasme high fashion, most famously by Marc Jacobs, but also Anna Sui and Calvin Klein and others. And then of course it was mass produced and sold in the mall to suburban kids who don't know that they could get a better worn out flannel at the church bazaar!
This is, of course, capitalism. We are always taking art and turning it into commerce. I find it extra horrific when the inspiration for consumer objects comes from people whose style prevails when they are forced to do without (Erin Wasson's out of touch comments about homeless people come to mind), but i don't think its wrong that fashion designers are inspired by people from all walks of life. If designers like Chanel and Poiret hadn't found inspiration in Eastern dress, women might never have stopped wearing corsets. But I do think it is important that people understand that clothing isn't simply something that we wear, like everything we make it is embedded with meaning and memory, a projection of the collective consciousness. I think its important that people know that denim began as work clothing, that a top hat represented the aristocracy in the 19th century, and that their black and white checkered scarf might be interpreted by a lot of people as pro-Palestine. The more we treat our clothing as throw away and meaning less the more we fall victim to the cultur of conspicuous consumption and fast fashion. When fashion is about having the next new thing, real true style- something that has nothing to do with money- is lost.