Lost in Translation: Grunge and Resistance to Fashion

April 11, 2014 • Fashion

Reflecting on the “overwhelming failure” of last year’s Met Gala on punk culture, Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker claimed that “there is no axis along which [the exhibit] functions properly.” He continues:

The basic concept fails before you walk into the gallery, because, categorically, the negative power of punk cannot register at an institution like the Met… “Chaos to Couture” refuses to take on either the thorny ideas of punk as praxis or the slightly less thorny idea of beautiful clothes found in unexpected places…The biggest sin of this current show is not that it isn’t true to punk. It’s that it doesn’t honor history, ideas, or clothing. It’s dull, and even a suburban house party can negate that kind of bad religion.

This meditation stayed with me since I last read it in the wake of the Met Gala. I would not characterize the show as a complete failure, as it did piece together some very interesting indices of the influence punk aesthetics have had on fashion. Nevertheless, the dissonance Frere-Jones reads in the curatorial mission of the show also appeared on the red carpet, which was an awkward parade of people giving long-winded explanations about how their gowns fit into the year’s theme. I got the impression that no one knew what punk meant–that there was a fundamental misunderstanding in the Gala’s handling of the visual language.

Punk aesthetics have long been used to oil fashion’s industrial machine. Grunge, an offshoot of punk that rose in the ’90s, is fashion’s current obsession. Grunge is punk’s most resonant echo in our present moment, which was arguably product of Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent takeover. Despite the uptake of grunge in recent seasons, however, I’ve noticed unease. There’s a conceptual resistance produced at the nexus of grunge aesthetics and luxury fashion, a rift that cannot be remedied with two-ply cashmere and $2,000 leather jackets.

Say what? Lost in translation at Saint Laurent.

Say what? Lost in translation at Saint Laurent.

The most recent Saint Laurent collection was an ode to British mod. But the ones before it were strongly marked with grunge’s influence; the two before it that have already seen the market of e-commerce and style blogs have laid the groundwork for more grunge to come. With every glamorous ripped sweater or flannel shirt I saw in those presentations, the friction between the worlds of luxury and grunge became more clear.

Grunge’s nature was partially as a resistance to mainstream fashion, which some saw as implicated in a broader political landscape that conditioned racism and other forms of discrimination. While moving away from the hard-edged affect of punk and hardcore, grunge maintained political consciousness. Journalist Daragh McMannus expands in The Guardian: “…it was subterfuge, knowledge, philosophy, empathy, wit, courage, love, desire and anger.” Catherine Strong in her 2011 book Grunge: Music and Memory also reminds us that grunge is part of a larger ideological framework.

Grunge, in other words, supersedes fashion. Fashion is an undeniable part of it, and that cannot be forgotten. Steven Meisel’s Vogue editorial from 1995 and Marc Jacobs’ infamous Perry Ellis collection stand out as indexes of a relationship that has been popular, though uneasy. However, grunge’s connections to literature, politics, and broader sociological trends make it larger than fashion. Grunge can elude fashion’s attempts to pin it down as an aesthetic tool for the creation of trends. Trends work because they define the moment, and they articulate a method of desiring new commodities. A trend legitimizes the need for an espadrille shoe or a periwinkle suede bag instead of its chartreuse counterpart. Grunge can carry itself without fashion defining a context in which to buy. It evades being appropriated and then thrown out by residing in our parents’ closets, at thrift shops, and on vintage-commerce sites.

The men of Nirvana.

Few other styles are like grunge, because few other styles can roll through history as grunge has. Though people who identify under the scepter of the movement are now few, the clothes have a continued cultural gravitas. Grunge is never old. On the other hand, fashion’s defining characteristic is its programmed dereliction, death, and decay.  Behind the insistent richness of contemporary grunge luxe, there’s an attempt to entomb grunge in this system. But, if the Met Gala and current fashions are any indication, it will continue to resist.

Follow @kesseje on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of Style Bistro and Wallpaper.com.

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