Come as You Are: The Reinvention of 90s Grunge Style

Pretend with me for a moment that it’s the fall of 1993.

Bill Clinton is president of the United States. Janet Jackson is topless on the cover of Rolling Stone, Mariah Carey is cooing about her Dream Lover and Bjork is illuminating the oddities of human behavior with every breathy yodel. “The Real World” – the first official reality television show in history – is only in its second season, with its greatest MTV network competition being “Beavis and Butthead.”

Most notably, American pop culture has spent the previous year saturated in the spirit of grunge. The thriving Seattle music scene from the late 1980s passed its torch to the 1990s, allowing its untrammeled essence to bleed through the formerly polished and ‘pretty’ avenues of mainstream America.

“Come As You Are,” though Nirvana’s chart-topping single released two years ago in 1991,  remains the lingering message. Grunge-inspired flannels, ripped jeans, vintage-store-purchased babydoll dresses, chokers and combat boots can be found in closets and dressing rooms in every definitely-not-on-the-cutting-edge-of-trends nook and cranny of the nation.

How America Got Grunged

At the time of its budding popularity, the media accused the grunge trend of condoning drug use. Although a byproduct of the subculture – and, therefore, a component – such accusation was not entirely true. Grunge fashion had a much more practical origin, in fact.

It’s birthplace was the Pacific Northwest – primarily the Seattle music scene – with elements motivated more by comfort than style. The region’s unpredictable climate prompted local musicians – individuals who were often living within modest means – to wear layers of casual and mismatched clothing items; opting to always have a spare flannel shirt conveniently tied around their waists.

So, how did the rest of America become infected?

The answer is simple: Following the synth pop sounds, “bubble gum” lyrical themes and sexually-driven, hair-whipping glam metal bands of the 1980s, the music industry hungered for depth and reflection – something listeners could sink their teeth into in hopes of tasting its flesh. The hunt became for something which reflected reality as opposed to glossing and gyrating over it. Seattle delivered, and the rest of America gobbled it up with fervor, vigor and a middle finger in the air.

So What Do Beauty and Fashion Have to Do With it?

The mindset mirrored the music which then mirrored the image – an image uncontrived, disheveled and appearing as though the wardrobe had been pieced together by articles of clothing strewn across the bedroom floor. Such look was never complete, however, without the element of unapologetic nonconformity. A culture of being “different” and resisting societal norms was the new “cool.”

What grunge did for mainstream music, it did for pop culture in general – including the beauty and fashion industries: It bred the freedom of exploration in terms of personal style – cultivating a climate of depth, introspection and self-expression. The red carpet was rolled out for rare, second-hand and non-designer fashions, giving the unpolished and uncensored permission to also be “pretty.”

And, just as art inspires life and life inspires art, art inspires art. The grunge music movement inspired fashion which then inspired the appearance of hair and makeup.

The lipstick got darker and more muted as the song lyrics delved deeper into exploring the cavernous hollows of the human soul. Just as the fashions were no longer sprinkled with sparkle, glitter and splatter paint, hair and makeup trends also aligned – conveying the flat, matte, absence-of-fairy-dust mentality.

So, now that you know its origin and agree that it’s a desired look, how do you recreate it?

To begin, please understand that this is a reinvention, therefore there will be subtle differences.

Most importantly, however, the essence – the emotion, the vibe – is what we are channeling: a look understated yet complicated, disheveled yet accidentally sexy, introspective yet brooding and dissident with roots in contemplation and rebellion.

So let us dive into it, swallow a heaping portion of it, and remix it: This time around, “Come as you are” remains the message. However, 90s grunge style is slightly soft-served – still filtered through the spirit of angst, yet colliding with the glamour and sophistication of our modern today: Mindfully blended, refined and framed with much fuller browns.

So let us begin.

The “Courtney” Look:

Courtney Love’s style during this period was poetically contrasting – containing elements of both avengement and sensuality, while borrowing from the Old Hollywood and timeless looks of glamour. She was a bold and ironic blend of feminine and vulnerable – like a fragile, wounded flower – yet more blood-curdling and combative than her most outspoken male counterparts.

Love slapped music fans with angst and pain, but never without filtering it through a celebration of her seductive wiles. Lolita-esque slip dresses were paired with either classic red or wine-drenched lipstick, porcelain skin, smudged black eyeliner, ripped pantyhose and combat boots – a middle finger or cigarette often serving as her outfit’s key accessory. Her hair was as disheveled as it was sexy –  appearing as aggravated as her attitude toward the media.

Lipstick Recommendations for a Courtney-esque Pout:

  • MAC Lipstick in Ruby Woo
  • Topshop Lip Bullet in Wine Gum
  • Urban Decay Gwen Stefani Collection Lipstick in Rocksteady
Get Your Body Loved by Courtney, Courtesy of Nasty Gal

And, if you consider Love to be the patron saint of grunge, you must feast your eyes (and, perhaps, body parts) on the ‘Love, Courtney’ collection by Nasty Gal. It will satiate your raging 90s angst for quite some time.

Dos & Don’ts of  the “Seattle Street Style, Soft-Served and Remixed” Look

To begin, your facial expression must contain some level moodiness. It rains a lot there. So strip away the excessive cheer, grab a cup of coffee and a journal, and let’s get serious.

Thou shalt refrain from shimmer. Eyeshadows are matte with a finish slightly messy and conveying the “to hell with your norms” attitude. Nothing other than browns and earth tones were worn. Shadows and eyeliner are applied all around the eye (slightly raccoon-like).

A post shared by 90s (@90s.era) on

In fact, it is entirely appropriate for your eyeliner application to appear as though you spent the previous night in a mosh pit, your boyfriend’s sweaty garage or, perhaps, passed out on somebody’s couch.

This look is designed to express a defiance to the notions of rules, conformity and time management. Lashes are thick and plush, but never Bambi-like or well-separated.

The Best Lip Colors For a Matte 90s Pout

The Not-Yet-Grunged Nudes

Listed in order from angelic to on-the-verge.

  • Anastasia Beverly Hills Liquid Lipsticks in Ashton & Crush
  • Colourpop Ultra Matte in Midi
  • Kylie Matte Liquid Lipstick in Dolce K
  • Tarte Tarteist Lip Paint in Choker & Rave
The Darker Side

Listed in order from subtle rebellion to vampiest.

  • Anastasia Beverly Hills Liquid Lipstick in Veronica
  • Tarte Tarteist Lip Paint in Grunge
  • Colourpop Ultra Matte in Nevermind
  • Stila Stay All Day Lipstick in Chianti
Bonus: Must-Watch 90s Grunge-Related Documentaries & Films
“My So-Called Life”: Complete Series

If you crave the brooding, introspective and poetically yet semi-tormenting energy of adolescence in the early-to-mid-1990s, this television series will become your stomping grounds of entertainment and indulgence. Purchase here.

“Reality Bites”

The quintessential 90s pop culture film, Winona Ryder is everyone’s girl crush and partner-in-angst. She is the epitome of 90s grunge allure: Uncontrived and accidentally sexy. Ethan Hawke isn’t particularly offensive either. Watch it here.

“Soaked in Bleach”

The findings offered in the documentary draw a conclusion that may or may not be true, but all is well-executed and certainly interesting for anyone intrigued by the short life of icon Kurt Cobain. Watch it here.


Lacey Johnson

Madam Wonder: Founding Editor

Lacey Johnson is an award-winning editor, essayist and journalist who earned her degree from Belmont University in 2011. She has worked with a broad range of celebrities and entrepreneurs — including the likes of Betsey Johnson, Deepak Chopra, Shark Tank's Daymond John and Olympic Gold Medalist Shawn Johnson. She is editor-in-chief for The Connect magazine, and her work can be read in a variety of print and digital media sources including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day, Mirabella, PopSugar, and others. With a deep intrigue for human beings, and fiery passion for smacking her readers in the face with the truth, she writes and reports boldly about topics that challenge the status quo — in the realms of love and relationships, popular culture, travel, spirituality, women’s issues and the nuances of a fulfilling life. She is also deep in the process of co-authoring her first book, which is a gutsy exploration of the illusions of fame, power and success, told through narratives involving some of the people the world most idolizes.

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