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Vans and Dolls: The most iconic alternative styles of the 1990s

We’ve revisited the safety pins and bondage pants of the 70s. And we fondly remembered the big hair and gothic style of the 80s. That can only mean one thing……. we’ve managed to get all the way to the 1990s! The plaid and Vans of Pop-punk! The underwear-as-outerwear of grunge! The black eyeliner and anime inspired hair of Emo! Yes….1990s alternative style had it all.  So turn off your Nokia 3310.  Pause Titanic on the VCR. We are going through the style fails and triumphs of the last decade that made frosted tips truly acceptable.*

The 1990s was a veritable melting pot of different styles and trends. There was no one definitive garment that could sum up the whole decade in the same way that miniskirts defined the 1960s and flares represented the 1970s. The 90s was also the decade that saw various sub-genres within alternative music thrive and therefore picking a list of styles that defined punk in isolation is tricky. Instead, this article will pay tribute to the various staples of a myriad of looks under the generic heading of ‘alternative’. A lot of the styles that became popular in this decade were a celebration of contradictions- mixing two or more aesthetic motifs that jarred against each other. Here are some of the most influential:



You may not be familiar with the term ‘kinderwhore’ but you’ll certainly be familiar with the look and those who adorned it. Courtney Love, Kat Bjelland and Shirley Manson all made this look popular from the early to mid-90s. The kinderwhore style was a deliberate subversion of the traditional idea of femininity. Taking the most overt and restricting feminine looks and embellishing them to almost caricature levels.  Then mixing them with a dishevelled/ripped/almost grubby look. 

The staples of the look were underwear-as-outerwear.  Lingerie, slips and babydoll dresses that were torn up or stained. Conservative style necklines such as peter pan or scalloped were also popular.  The subversion of the look was in the details: large biker boots to offset the girly clothes; big messy hair with grown-out dye jobs; imprecise and smudged make up. To the uninitiated, it looked more Barbie gone wrong than anything else, but the look was actually a big ‘fuck you’ to traditional ideas of a woman looking sexy and polished.



Skater style:

Pop punk was THE big thing in the 1990s as far as punk was concerned. Whilst every country had its pop-punk bands we must hand the title of ‘Kings of Pop Punk’ squarely to the Americans. They started it; exported it around the world and made it a giant music behemoth which still goes strong today. It follows then, that the overall look is very ‘all American’ in terms of the look itself and the brands that catered for it. Skater style was the go-to for any punky teenager in the 1990s particularly drawing influence from the sun-kissed, laid-back style of California. For girls, think spaghetti strap tops; capri pants; long hair and chokers. For guys think knee-length shorts; short spiky hair; baggy t-shirts and of course, Vans or Converse shoes.



Political body paint:


Widely associated with the Riot Grrl movement, those feminists took the 1970s idea of sloganeering your clothes to the next level. Don’t bother ruining a perfectly good jacket or t-shirt with some political message- scrawl it directly on to your skin instead. Provocative slogans such as ‘slut’ and ‘incest?’ Gig attire (on the part of the bands at least) was also similarly a statement: many Riot Grrl bands such as Bikini Kill; Bratmobile and Babes in Toyland would perform in a minimum amount of clothing so their statements could be seen and encourage male audience members to get to the back of the crowd to allow the ‘girls to the front’.




Baggy Trousers:

No, not the Madness song but the ill-fitting leg garment. If wearing your nighty outside a-la-Kinderwhore was not your thing, you had the option of going the whole hog the other way and just wearing stuff that your dad could lend you. Picture Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and The Breeders and what can you see? Plaid? Check. Worn over a band t-shirt? Check. Big baggy jeans? Double check. Both men and women rocked this look and the fashion for women to wear ‘boyfriend jeans’ (loose fitting jeans that are modelled on men’s styles) is still super popular today. This trend went across the spectrum to pop punk as well- in fact, many a life-threatening injury was caused by skaters who tripped over their own trailing trouser leg**



We can’t (as much as we may want to) ignore the importance of Emo for every teenager that has ever had even a tiny bit of angst and access to black hair dye. The origins of Emo can be traced back to the 1980s however its true moment of mainstream glory came about in the late 90s-early 2000s. How many youngsters on Myspace between 2004 and 2010 DIDN’T have a profile picture that involved big black hair with a blunt, sweeping fringe and racoon eye makeup look? Answer- NONE. Skinny jeans were also a staple of this look as was the band hoody (a snuggly upgrade from a mere t-shirt). It was dark, it was brooding, it was black. But the subversion comes with the baffling incorporation of anything ‘kawaii’ (the Japanese culture of ‘cuteness’) such as cartoon merchandise and children’s jewellery. Think Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy; Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance and Hayley Williams from Paramore.


Athletic wear:

Another style that was incorporated into an alternative genre and quietly corrupted. A lot of nu-metal bands such as Korn; Deftones and bands like Cypress Hill incorporated Adidas and tracksuits etc. into their stage wear. But this clean-living brand/look was subverted by the other aspects of the look (dreadlocks, piercings etc) as well as songs about things maybe less wholesome than the Adidas brand had in mind: namely, sex, drugs and rock n roll. Still, as it did their sales no harm, Adidas didn’t complain.



If it seems like the 90s just re-hashed style that had come and gone in previous decades then you could have a point, particularly when considering that everything iconic about the 60s Mod movement was re-imagined for a mid-90s second British Invasion. Britpop and the whole ‘Cool Britannia’ thing (led by Oasis, Blur, Elastica and Suede amongst many others) resurrected many aspects of the classic ‘Mod’ look and culture. The ‘Ivy League’ haircut (short back and sides to you and me)’ Union Jack paraphernalia and green Parka jackets all made a comeback and men’s tailor Paul Smith was catapulted to the forefront of British nostalgic fashion.


Batshit crazy mish-mash of all sorts of stuff:

Yes, it was hard to think if a catchy title for this bit, it’s more a list of all the random trends that came and went in 90s alternative scene. There was the whole ‘Bindis-on-your-forehead’ thing thanks to Gwen Stefani, that then morphed into general sparkly studs adorning your face. Feather boas worn by Bjork and PJ Harvey meant every charity shop from Sunderland to Bristol experienced an unprecedented run on this item of kitsch, leading to the Great Fake Feather Shortage of 1992. Mesh tops were another favourite with the indie singer/songwriter crowd such as Tori Amos; Fiona Apple and Alanis Morrissette. You’d have to save your best, least grubby bra for when you were gonna rock this look.


So, there you have it. The 1990s was a veritable smorgasbord of bits and pieces; old faithfuls and new ideas; east and west, yin and yang. The vast array of music on offer meant you were spoilt for choice when composing your own look. And whilst some of these looks have drifted out of the realms of acceptability nowadays, the affection people hold for the 1990s means that if you still wanted to sport an emo fringe and a bindi….you might be able to still get away with it.  


*I’m joking. They were never acceptable.

**That is not a fact. But I bet it’s true.

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