Flannel and Grunge:
A Pacific Northwest Love Story
By, Sam Kuper
For many of us who call the Pacific Northwest our home, the flannel shirt is more than the symbol of Paul Bunyan and his tall tales of folk heroism as a Midwestern lumberjack. While its iconography may have originated as common work shirts in frontier industries of the late 19th century, their explosive popularity in the Pacific Northwest, specifically since the 90's, is tied to a much wider cultural movement that is marked by teenage angst, disillusionment, and nihilism—grunge.
The late 1980's were generally a time of mass cultural change and fragmentation worldwide. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and while Ronald Reagan had reinvigorated the country under the guise of the greatness of the “American dream,” many were still feeling left behind by the economic lag of the previous two decades. In the Pacific Northwest, traditionally powerful and successful industries like fishing and lumber were in drastic decline. The explosive growth of tech and retail giants in the region, like Microsoft, Starbucks, and Nike, made young people from agricultural small towns such as Aberdeen, Washington, feel like they were stuck in a forgotten corner of society.
With all of this frustration and uncertainty over their future at the forefront of their minds, fed up youth naturally expressed themselves through clothing and music. Released on September 24th 1991, Nirvana’s second studio album Nevermind embodied this cultural moment. Made up of band members from the aforementioned Aberdeen, led by Kurt Cobain, Nirvana was representative of a rejection of commercialism and materialism. Their distorted guitars and dissonant dark lyrics demonstrate a reaction to the current “glam rock” scene that was characterized by a clean and polished sound with loud and colorful outfit - repped by huge record labels and artists such as David Bowie and Van Halen. Oddly enough, their look and style was, and still is, a distinctive and essential aspect of their legacy. From the long stringy hair, to ripped jeans and over-sized t-shirts, Nirvana’s style was just as much a part of their contribution to the culture of the Pacific Northwest as their sound was.
Consistent with the look of their fellow grunge PNW contemporary Pearl Jam, the untucked flannel shirt became a staple for the music as a whole—the grey flannel shirt became the ideological counter to the grey suit of those young people who were chasing the perceived “false dream” of wealth. It was the uniform of those who were lost, and they felt connected to a community of like-minded rebels who rejected being simply a cog in the machine of straight-edged society. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden embraced the divisiveness and disconnection between themselves and the “mainstream,” and ironically gained immense mainstream popularity because of it.
While the flannel used to be the symbol of American expansion and frontier durability, its re-popularization by the grunge movement was in direct contradiction to the belief in the “American dream.” It demonstrated the uniqueness of PNW culture and people, and their message of rebellion was certainly heard and understood, despite some push-back from the “mainstream.” The cultural trends that these bands represented and characterized, alongside their style, are an essential part of our local history — and as you can see, that style is not going anywhere.