The Indie Sleaze Aesthetic Is Bringing '90s Grunge-Rock Vibes Back

In the world of gloriously untidy fashion trends, there's endless inspiration, including goth and punk, if you want to go all in. But there are two aesthetics that mainstream fashion returns to time and time again — indie-sleaze and grunge. Even Prada is bringing back grunge style these days.

Indie-sleaze and grunge are both a bit messy — gritty, really — incorporating distressed clothing, mismatched patterns, and leaning toward a darker color palette. But although similar, the difference is a matter of minimalism and maximalism. Grunge, often linked with the '90s Seattle music scene and singer Kurt Cobain, is a bit messy and minimalist. It incorporates distressed tees layered with flannel shirts, loose jeans, and maybe a pair of Doc Martens. Indie sleaze, on the other hand, is similar in its too-cool-to-care roots but is an all-out, in-your-face maximalist statement. Both styles are easily achieved by shopping at department stores or yard sales, but indie-sleaze might also benefit from a theater's costume department. In other words, it welcomes garish accessories and thrives on the element of the unexpected.

Every now and again, the fashion pendulum swings from one extreme to the opposite. Of late, the scene is growing tired of the hyper-tidy look of the clean girl aesthetic and instead moving towards a grittier vibe. Of course, grunge and indie sleaze are happy to step up. So embrace the Tumblr-style grainy photography that initially helped launch indie sleaze, to begin with, cue the Polaroids, and hop on these too-cool-for-school styles.

But first, this Afrogrunge masterclass

The line between grunge and indie sleaze is as blurred as the trends' smoky-eye makeup. And, in the midst of that blurred beauty, the founder of Afrogrunge, Anita Hlazo, offers up some on-point inspiration. You'll find classic aspects of the styles — torn tights, and tartan plaids, for example — along with visual surprises, like using hair clips as clothing accents. Not only are the clips cool, but they embrace the idea of using what's on hand — something these styles did long before the term upcycled fashion was a thing.

Stockpile disposable cameras for an authentic experience

Mandy Lee is a fashion expert who went on record in the fall of 2021 predicting the indie sleaze comeback. Not only was she not wrong, but her aesthetic recap also highlights the style's non-clothing aspects. The original early aughts version of the trend became popular during the time of Tumblr and included a celebration of old-school technology and oodles of intentionally amateur photography — grainy images, over-flashed photos, and anything grainy or blurry. Now, she says, you'll see wired headphones and plenty of homages to lo-fi everything.

If you need grunge inspiration, go to the source

Grunge started when Seattle bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana came on the scene, according to sources as widely recognized as Vogue and Britannica. Lead singer for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, is among the most commonly celebrated grunge icon. And, of course, he rocked distressed jeans and messy, layered looks, but he also made the cozy cardigan a grunge staple as well. In a performance from the MTV show, "Unplugged," Cobain combines a T-shirt, unbuttoned dress shirt, and tattered cardigan — a template we still see on the streets and runways.

Grab a grungy flannel

One of the best parts of grunge style is how easy it is to achieve. Here, TikTok user @marvmozaic proves that with some flannel-forward looks. All of the looks she created rely on the hallmarks of grunge. So, you'll find choker necklaces, flannel, baggy pants, combat-style boots, quirky tees, and the ever-versatile bucket hat. Of course, these fits are somewhat tidy; some, for example, have neatly tucked T-shirts. But, in the end, these looks inspire the full range of grunge. In other words, achieving the aesthetic goals doesn't need to be extreme.

Embrace layered plaid looks and grainy images

If you're just looking to dabble a bit in the grunge style without diving all the way in, this layered look is it. In fact, when the brand Abercrombie & Fitch first landed on the scene — as grunge was taking off in the '90s — the employee dress code required a blend of preppy-grunge layers, which always included flannel. And although it has changed over the years, according to Buzzfeed, that early Abercrombie look is still a classic, featuring grunge's favorite pattern — plaid. So, if nothing else, grab some versatile flannels.

Sometimes you just need scissors

The Instagram account @indiesleaze is heavy on the gritty images that indie-sleaze is known for, but they also posted this absolute gem. The 2007 commercial for Motorola's flip-style Motorola Razr2 is based on fashion's love of ripped and otherwise slashed clothing. But it also captures the style's culture of in-the-moment, uncurated photography, similar to the modern-day app BeReal, where users are prompted to post candid photos — and are given no prep time to create faux perfection. And all of this leads to the pro-grunge tip: plan your torn clothing, but keep the photos spontaneous.

There's no doubt, indie-sleaze is for the extroverts

TikTok influencer Elly Xia's roundup of Chinese street style speaks to just how prevalent grunge and indie sleaze have become. Her summation includes sleaze looks that use metal necklaces, oversized tie-dye, chunky boots, and everything from leather to metallics. It's also a great example of how to mix and match contradicting vibes. For example, one look is a mish-mash of indie-punk and the Japanese culture of kawaii, known for its feel-good cute, aesthetic, and anime-like characters (think Hello Kitty and Pokémon). These surprising pairings are on point for indie sleaze.

Mix and match grunge essentials

First, decide whether to tie the flannel around your waist or layer it over an edgy tee. After that, creating a grunge look is easy as long as you have some of the essentials. At this point, it's a good time to drag your old concert tees out of storage — or ask (elder) family members if they squirreled away some Van Halen or Rolling Stones shirts from back in the day. From there, just add some ripped jeans, Doc Martens, and a beanie hat, and you're ready for that late-night Pearl Jam cover show.

The weird reason indie sleaze might increase cutlery sales

One noteworthy aspect of indie sleaze is potentially annoyed parents when dinner time rolls around. The thing is, it's fairly likely that the supply of dinner forks will dwindle due to the trend of using forks to rip pantyhose, per TikTok user @ufxits. But eventually, they'll be found in backpacks, coffee shop bathrooms, or other random places where teens work diligently to stay on-trend and shred nylons to indie-sleaze perfection. And though the technique stood the test of time, let's all agree to do it at home so we don't have to be spoon-only eaters.

Grunge at its everyday best

We love this modern-day riff on grunge, so let's break it down. First, Instagram user @weird_as_ari begins with a grunge staple — pairing a graphic tee with distressed jeans. Here, she goes with a cropped hem and moto-style ribbing on black acid-washed jeans. Next, she adds a pair of well-worn Converse chucks that complement the shirt and then brings it all together with a chunky red necklace that demonstrates how to make the Y2K choker necklace chic, per Glam. It's feminine yet gritty and features the style's signature classic flannel 'round the waist.