Kurt Cobain: Style Icon

How the Nirvana frontman recast the rock star for a new age

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Like many generation-defining performers, Kurt Cobain was a shape-shifter par excellence. In the pictures, as in his music, he is a constantly mobile, ever-changing presence. The look changes from long hair to short hair, from clean-shaven to bearded, from bruised to furious, from clear-eyed to an occluded gaze, from stoner kid to rock star: but the image is always subservient to the feeling. If pop is all about distilled emotions, then Cobain was so immersed in those waters that his preternatural ability to transmit went hand in hand with a dangerous lack of distance.

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Cobain was blessed, if only he'd known it, with extreme good looks: wide blue eyes, blonde hair, fine cheekbones. As he travelled through the byways of America's alternative culture, he changed his appearance to deny that genetic inheritance: he didn't feel handsome, so he disguised his face with badly applied make-up, week-old stubble, lanky hair. In this guise, he blended in with the crowd, a matter both of personal psychology and peer pressure in an aggressively egalitarian subculture.

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What's fascinating about Cobain is how his appearance changed in 1991, on the brink of success. Suddenly, he is beautiful: the scraps of torn clothes have become an aesthetic, while the lack of beard reveals the cheekbones. Shedding the trappings of anonymity, he looks like what he is on the cusp of becoming: a superstar. For a few months, he steps up to the role with a colourful montage of thrift store clothing — pyjama tops, ratty alpaca cardigans, ripped and patched jeans — and a shorter, styled haircut. He is androgynous and resplendent. 

Once the full impact of Nevermind hit, the problems started. Cobain attempted to use his appearance as a baffle but just as often he couldn't help but reveal, through his self-consciousness, the turmoil that lay underneath. A January 1992 photo session with Michael Lavine showed him nodding out on heroin, his long hair dyed red and his face scowling. It's such a shocking image that it's almost a kind of manifesto, a statement of intent: his withdrawal from the demands of celebrity and stardom starts here.

From then on, the image becomes inescapable from biography: decline interspersed with periods of clarity and reconnection. In Jesse Frohman's iconic July 1993 picture of America's hottest rock star, a young man of 26 stands hunched, scrunched. His features are almost totally obscured by a hunting hat, deep stubble and a beard. The viewer's eyes are directed to the white, Sixties shades which look like insect eyes, acting as a substitute for the real things. The glare is intense but Cobain is hiding from the light.

Like John Lennon in the mid-Sixties, Cobain all too nakedly reflected the strains and stresses of superstardom in an ever changing image. He recast the rock star for a new age, being frankly androgynous — in that most macho of arenas, American rock — and being unafraid to promote the feminine, the outsider, the damaged and the lost. His ambiguous appearance, together with his extraordinary, innate fashion sense, was as much a marker of this new era as Nirvana's music: at the time, it was inspirational, and time only deepens the sense of waste and loss.

Taken from the Esquire style icons issue, out now.