Grunge Aesthetic: History, Types, and How to Look Fashionably Unkempt

What is the grunge aesthetic?

The grunge aesthetic is often associated with a particular style characterized by a devil-may-care attitude towards fashion. However, it is so much more than Doc Martens, ripped jeans, and vintage band tees. It is also deeply rooted in music and is a lifestyle unto itself. Here’s everything you need to know about grunge and its origins.


What is Grunge?

The word itself is associated with “dirty” or something that is messy. In some way, this also defines the grunge music genre and lifestyle. The movement itself has over 30 years’ worth of history, from its origins in the underground scene to finally becoming mainstream. Here’s how it all began.

model wearing grunge fashion
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Back in 1983, the Melvins were formed in Washington State. They were among the first generation of bands to mix both punk and metal to create their grunge rock sound. During this period, Seattle was also just starting to grow from its hippie image while also holding on to its counterculture philosophy.

After the Melvins, other Seattle-based grunge bands began to pop up. This includes the likes of Soundgarden, Green River, and the Screaming Trees. Many of the city’s foremost bonds became a tight-knit group, though they would eventually undergo major transformations. By the time the late 80s and early 90s rolled around, they had split into two factions: those who stuck to being nonconformist and those who went mainstream.


The Grunge Aesthetic and Nirvana

When it comes to grunge music, one of the most familiar groups to mainstream and even indie audiences is Nirvana. Did you know that they were formed with the help of the Melvins? It was through this collaboration that Dave Grohl was introduced to Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, after all. They got together in 1990 and by 1991, managed to produce their first chart-topper on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart.

Back then, the term grunge rock mostly pertained to the heavy use of guitar distortion and feedback in the genre’s sound. It is much less polished than the early varieties of rock and greatly emphasized emotion instead of performance. This can be seen in the musician’s appearances as well. In the beginning, the ripped jeans, dirty flannels, and worn-out Converse sneakers were due to them mostly being broke musicians.

It isn’t surprising that their fans began to take inspiration from this unkempt manner of dress, unconsciously creating the 90s grunge fashion.


Grunge Rock and the Move to Mainstream

So how did this once underground movement manage to become a fashion style? Part of it is due to the music genre’s success. Following Nirvana’s first major hit, other grunge artists such as Pearl Jam and Mudhoney also found popularity. Eventually, designers such as Marc Jacobs began to take notice. However, it wasn’t accepted at first. In fact, his Marc Jacob’s first grunge-inspired collection got him fired from the brand Perry Ellis.

In the same way grunge music began to grow in popularity among the masses, so did the style that’s heavily associated with it. The rich began to wear designer copies, while those who wanted to stay true to grunge’s roots preferred Goodwill finds. There’s no denying that it started out as a trend, but grunge fans are inherently different toward fashion.

Quite ironic, isn’t it? For a movement that is heavily anti-capitalism, it ended up becoming a brand unto itself.


Examples of Grunge Clothing

Looking for grunge aesthetic clothes? In its essence, the style is all about being laidback about one’s appearance and putting personality over everything else. Some of its defining features include:


Oversized Clothing

Oversized Grunge Clothing
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Most people want something that fits them well. However, the grunge aesthetic places emphasis on loose and comfortable garments that drape over the wearer like a protective cape.



Flannels and Grunge Clothes
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Aside from choosing earth tones, flannels are also meant to be worn a little too big. Thrifted ones are better since they’ll be much softer and would hang better on the body once worn. Any minor flaws such as tears and holes are often left as is. Think of these as a “mark of authenticity.”


Graphic or Band Shirts

Grunge Outfits and Band Shirts
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What better way to support and show your love for your favorite group than to wear their merch? Aside from band tees, eye-catching graphic shirts are also a staple of 90s grunge fashion. Even today, it still remains popular. Most people prefer vintage ones, though there are also high street options that mimic the style quite well.


Tattered Denim

Ripped or Tattered Grunge Denim
Photo from Pixabay

You get plus points if you ripped them by hand or got your jeans destroyed during a concert! It isn’t unusual for these jeans to have random stains on them as well. A little bit of dirt only adds more personality to a garment when it comes to grunge fashion. So feel free to add paint marks or even draw on your favorite vintage pair. The more worn-in and aged it looks, the better.


Converse Sneakers and Doc Martens

Grunge Style Shoes
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While high-cut sneakers and boots aren’t exactly exclusive to grunge aesthetic outfits, they have also become deeply associated with it. Of course, like most garments typical of grunge, these look their “best” when they’ve been well-loved. It isn’t unusual for people to purchase boots secondhand or purposely scuff up their sneakers.


Different Aesthetics and Grunge

Grunge elements often pop up in some modern fashion trends. To help you better understand what the grunge aesthetic actually is, here are a few things you need to keep in mind.


Soft Grunge Aesthetic vs. Soft Girl Aesthetic

These two fashion styles share more than just a word in common; they also highlight femininity in varying manners. The soft girl is known for preferring pastels and traditionally feminine forms of expression. They are also fans of anything considered “kawaii” –  even those seen as childish.

Similar elements can also be seen when it comes to soft grunge. Pastel and neutral tones are also staples, but these are made edgier by the addition of ripped tights, boots, and darker grunge makeup.


Grunge Aesthetic vs. Goth Aesthetic

When it comes to grunge and Goth, there is one major similarity. Both are movements known for being nonconformist and are also deeply associated with outsiders. These two also have roots in music, which highlight the darker subjects of life. However, in terms of aesthetic, these two couldn’t be more different from each other.

The Goth aesthetic comes in many different variations, but there has always been an underlying vein of romanticism and elegance in all of them. Think rich fabrics such as velvet, lace trimmings, macabre accessories, and various symbolism. These are just some of the defining features of the Goth aesthetic.

On the other hand, grunge is looser and much less polished. Grunge fashion is also closer to “starving artist” instead of vampire. Some might say that grunge style can also be seen in Pastel Goth, but there are still very distinct differences between the two.


Grunge Aesthetic vs. Egirl Aesthetic

One of the most interesting things about the egirl aesthetic is the way it takes from many different influences. It is inspired by anime and cosplay, skate culture, hip-hop, a bit of Goth, and even Harajuku street fashion. Some egirls also enjoy a bit of grunge fashion, though the way they wear it differs from the traditional style greatly.

Unlike the egirl, who is quite brand-conscious and follows specific trends, the grunge aesthetic remains in its own bubble. They may intersect when it comes to flannels, band tees, and Doc Martens, but “grungies” maintain a degree of “griminess” to their look. It is much less pretty and more suited for daily wear.


Different Aesthetic Types of Grunge

Grunge aesthetic clothes have had many reinterpretations over the years. It has been incorporated into other similar styles, such as hippie, skater, punk, and even high-fashion. You might be surprised at the sheer number of designers who include elements of it into their collections. It’s a testament to the timeless appeal grunge fashion has. With that said, here are a few of our favorite grunge styles:


Hippie Grunge or 90s Hippie

As the name might suggest, this look is a mix of the hippie style of the 60s and 70s with 90s grunge fashion. It is defined by long dresses or skirts, floral and lace motifs, crystal or gemstone rings, chokers, and boots. To make the look edgier, you can wear flannels over your dresses or tie them around your waist. This adds a bit more toughness to the usually feminine hippie style.


Grunge Fairycore / Goblincore

Have you heard of fairycore or goblincore aesthetic? These aesthetics take inspiration from nature and elementals. It embraces individuality and finding beauty even in the wild and, often, dirty natural environments. In terms of fashion, it’s all about thrift-finds, secondhand, and DIY. Pieces such as long skirts, velvet tops, lace pieces, and knits are commonplace. The grunge aesthetic outfits version introduces ripped jeans, boots, and oversized tees and outerwear to create a slightly more masculine look.


90s Grunge

By now, you’ve likely seen old photos of the band Nirvana and of stars Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp. For fans of this aesthetic, these three are a major source of style inspiration. Aside from mimicking the original 90s grunge fashion, you can also add 90s staples such as boxy blazers, wearing innerwear as outerwear, silk slip dresses paired with combat boots, and ripped tights!


Soft Grunge

As we’ve established earlier, this look is quite feminine with a slight streetwear edge. Fans of this style often wear floral summer dresses paired with worn-out boots. Dark colored knee-highs, skater skirts, oversized vintage denim jackets, and colorful sunglasses are also key pieces. Soft grunge makeup can either be light or dark, though most people go for a light base with dark or even black lipstick.


Punk Grunge

For this style, punk is incorporated in the accessories. The clothes mostly remain loyal to the grunge aesthetic, but with the addition of metal or silver jewelry, plenty of piercings, and dark makeup. While grunge is usually more earth-toned, punk grunge tends to be darker in palette. Oversized garments are still commonplace. These are usually paired with tight bottoms, such as leggings or skinny jeans.


Grunge Girl Examples

Looking for some inspiration for your grunge outfits? There are plenty of fictional and real life examples to choose from. Here are some of our favorite grunge girls!


Drew Barrymore

She may dress a bit more conservatively these days, but 90s Drew Barrymore remains one of the most iconic fashion inspirations for many. Her grunge girl days gave us grunge with a touch of hippie. From her hair to her makeup, many still copy the actress’ 90s style today!


Daria Morgendorffor and Jane Lane

Daria and Jane were the stars of the popular adult animated series of the same name. The character Daria originally appeared as a recurring character in the series Beavis and Butt-head but got her own spin-off thanks to the character’s popularity. Their style is true to the original grunge fashion, characterized by oversized outerwear, dark colors, and combat boots.


Alanis Morissette

Some might argue that her music is more pop than grunge, but her style certainly helped define the popular looks of the 90s. Alanis Morissette is a singer-songwriter whose baggy clothing, long and messy locks, and aggressive songs helped cement her status as an iconic grunge girl in music and fashion.


Janis Ian from Mean Girls

Portrayed by actress Lizzy Caplan in the Mean Girls film, Janis Ian’s style is a cross between grunge and punk. She often wore baggy clothing and accessorized with a scowl. Kidding aside, her often androgynous grunge outfits can be fun everyday looks too!


Courtney Love

Courtney Love is best known as the front woman of the 90s supergroup, Hole. However, she is also familiar to most music fans as Kurt Cobain’s other half. They were one of the 90s’ most-watched couples and even after Cobain’s sudden passing, the spotlight remained on the singer-songwriter. Her grunge style can be considered the blueprint for today’s soft grunge looks. She often wore slip or baby doll dresses paired with oversized outerwear. Even at present, many consider her a fashion icon!


The Grunge Aesthetic Goes Beyond Fashion

Clothing aside, grunge is a lifestyle that goes against the norm and celebrates the individual. These are just some of the reasons why it hasn’t died down, even decades after. While grunge music may no longer be as popular, you will still find many people who adhere to its philosophies. So go on, be a bit fearless and more carefree about your style. It’s all about how clothes make you feel, after all!