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The New Irony: Pastel Grunge
"Picture a combination of Courtney Love and My Little Pony"

Photo: ineedskinnygenes.tumblr

Fashion revivals are as inevitable as labels and lap dogs. But what is surprising nowadays is the speed at which past eras are excavated and dusted off in the search of the ‘newest’ trend. The Millennium New Years’ confetti had barely been swept up when the 1980’s revival began, with young people adopting shoulder pads and neon largely because they were too young for them the first time around.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it’s the 1990’s being rediscovered. On the runways, designers are adding more complexity to minimalism, with John Galliano’s extravagance at Dior being replaced by Raf Simon’s studied simplicity.

But at the other end of the fashion world, a very different ‘90s revival is taking place. Instead of accepting the cold austerity and monochromatic colours of minimalism, young women have rediscovered the ripped stockings, denim vests, studded leather jackets, concert t-shirts and chunky boots of ‘90s Grunge. But with one key difference: they combine this harsh, gritty aesthetic with the pretty, girly colours of a birthday cake. Because their hair is often dyed bright pink, purple or blue, these women’s style has been dubbed ‘Pastel Grunge’ (sometimes Rainbow Grunge). Picture a combination of Courtney Love and My Little Pony, and you’re most of the way there.

But the Nirvana era is not the only source of inspiration for Pastel Grunge. Followers adopted the peace signs, yin yangs, and flower headpieces of the hippies; the crosses, pentagrams and skulls of punks and goths; and fluorescent plastic accessories of ‘90s ravers. Throw in Minnie Mouse bows from Japanese ‘kawaii’ culture and intricate galaxy print t-shirts (Judy Jetson would be proud) and it becomes clear that Pastel Grunge isn’t so much a revival as a brand new postmodern mishmash.

I first noticed the style on the microblogging site Tumblr and it stuck in my mind partly because, like a little kid, I gravitate towards bright colours, but mainly because I found the tension between the friendly, childlike imagery and the tough, slightly-creepy vibe of Grunge original. And is there a winking eye behind those lavender-tinted sunglasses?

As Katie Oldham wrote on the Yuppee Magazine blog, “As this style is mostly worn by teens and tweens, it could almost be seen as a satirical trend, suggestively mocking the unicorns, rainbows and princesses they worshipped as children, injecting a more mature, hard-core edge to it, to create the ultimate bittersweet fashion.”

When looking for Pastel Grunge fashions online, you’re just as likely to find photographs of unicorns, kittens and dolphins in washed-out, pale colours. (No high-saturation Instagram filters here!) It’s clearly an aesthetic about more than just clothes. I have yet to notice a lot of it on the streets of Toronto, but it’s coming. I first heard the term ‘Rainbow Grunge’ from a friend who is a vintage picker. She was instructed to look out for items that fit the trend.

“Tumblr has played a massive role in popularizing the style,” says Kayla Londardo, who, with Daniel Dubois, sells Pastel Grunge items under the label Bones Couture. “I see more and more outfit pictures of girls with pastel hair and black lipstick, with a goth/grunge twist to it. People find the style interesting, so the images are reblogged more frequently than they used to be. I think Tumblr is really connecting people to new trends they may not have ever seen, and inspiring them.”

But Lonardo, who has enjoyed creepy-cute images of kittens and skeletons long before the current craze, cautions that the look requires confidence and a sense of humour: “You can’t take wearing funny alien t-shirts and tie dye too seriously. That would just be odd.” 

From Parisian bohemians, London punks and Kensington Market hipsters, youthful fashion trends have been always closely identified with specific geographic places. The main way trends travelled were from person to person, neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Before street style blogs, there was only the street.

The internet is changing that. With sites like Tumblr, young people in Tokyo, Berlin, and Toronto can inspire each other even though they are continents apart. Tumblr creates a virtual community where bloggers can find others with like interests, with no real world hangout needed. This is spreading trends throughout the world as fast as ‘Nigerian Prince’ spam e-mails.

These cotton candy haired sirens sing not of the past, but of the future. 


Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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