Grunge Grudge: A Look at the Way Clothes Shape Life

The return of sloppy '90s Nevermind-ing brings Sheila Heti's thoughts to the crisp photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe—and her conviction that women should make a decisive sartorial mark, or none at all

Photo by Graziano Arici/Eyevine/Redux

Photo by Graziano Arici/Eyevine/Redux

Just the other day, a woman I know shocked me by confessing that she and her husband are on the cusp of divorce (they have two small children and seemed to be doing fine—though, of course, one never knows). Hearing her tell it over lunch, the problem was that a marriage that had started off “equal” ended up with way too much of the child-care responsibility being hers. She found herself perpetually angry. After an hour of talking about the more serious aspects, my mind brought me somewhere experimental, and I said, “Maybe you need a new look, so that when you go into the world after your divorce, no man will see you as the kind of woman who would accept a role at home with the children. Your perfume should smell like gasoline. You should always be wearing spikes.”

She laughed at the idea and told me that grunge was back; maybe she’d try that. Being a fashion woman, she listed the signs: Poppy Delevingne was shot in Seattle-ish toboggan socks with chunky sandals, Dries van Noten showed layers of up-scale plaid shirts, and Phillip Lim tied droopy shirts around the runway models’ waists.

I recoiled at her suggestion; plaid shirts were not what I had in mind. It’s surely personal: grunge takes me back to high school, a horrible time emotionally, but also aesthetically. Mid-’90s fashions were awful. I once heard someone say that a person will never stray far from the style that was dominant when they were young, and you can see this in women who continue to get their hair waved and wear the cashmere sweater sets of their teen years well into their 70s and 80s. As for me, having come of age in Nirvana’s heyday, I still find it a daily struggle to pull a comb through my hair, or not to be drawn to whatever is baggiest on the racks of a store. When I think about grunge, I think about its undisciplined carelessness. And while (as my friend insisted) Dries van Noten’s “rarefied and beautifully constructed plaid shirts” could not be called careless, I didn’t want to know. I had a counter-suggestion for her.

“I was thinking you should look more like Robert Mapplethorpe!”

When I think of people who have torn themselves from the mainstream of culture (as I wanted my friend to do) Mapplethorpe comes most strongly to mind. He was the most controversial artist I was exposed to in high school. As soon as I discovered his photographs (I can no longer remember how)—his unforgettable, beautiful black-and-white photos of buff men, flowers, erect penises and hard-core sex—my sensibilities totally broke apart.

I envisioned my prim and feminine friend in tight trousers, a leather band for a necklace, a thin white t-shirt, silver hardware, buff muscles shining. Yes. Grunge was too close to what I imagined was the default housewife’s wardrobe, anyway: unkempt, just whatever you can pull on in the mad rush. What my friend needed was a tight, defensive, angry silhouette that suggested sex and force; that she could not be knocked off her path.

Having made this suggestion, I saw my friend flip through her mental catalogue of magazines until she hit on a recent Vogue Paris cover on which Milla Jovovich posed in the new Hedi Slimane Saint Laurent leather safari shirt whose tightness and S&M–style lacing hinted at Mapplethorpe. I smiled.

A few weeks ago, there was a gift in my inbox from my friend Kenneth Goldsmith, an experimental poet who is writing an update of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. When the great 20th century philosopher died in 1940, he left behind an unfinished masterwork; an attempted encyclopedia of the feel of fin de siècle Paris. He copied down sentences and paragraphs from printed matter (he didn’t write anything original himself). The thoughtful miscellany catalogued new phenomena like the malls (which would later become our commonplace department stores), the sayings of poet and aesthete Baudelaire, Paris street-life and its cafés.

Goldsmith’s work-in-progress, titled Capital, attempts to do the same thing for late-20th century New York. He had been reading his way through the New York Public Library, and sent me a chapter titled Mapplethorpe, with a bewildering sentiment attached: “He reminds me of you!”

I began reading through the document: “Mapplethorpe was the 1970s leather-clad equivalent of the great dandies and decadents of the nineteenth century—Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Huysmans, Baudelaire.” He “embodied both Dionysian and Apollonian qualities—Dionysus being the ‘god of frenzy’ and Apollo ‘the god of proportion and form.’” I could see how my friend’s life (as a mother, a working woman and an elegant dresser) resembled both frenzy and form, and the constant interplay of these forces. My life, too. It’s a daily act to play these energies off each other as harmoniously as possible.

I was mesmerized. The picture of Mapplethorpe that emerged was of a deeply fascinating man: a genuine sadist, but captivating and brilliant, and also downright miserable. There was a dirtiness about him—not just in the sexual sense, but literally. Before going out for the night, “he was careful not to wash beneath his underarms because he believed perspiration odour was vital to his sex appeal.” And Andy Warhol complained about Mapplethorpe: “His feet smell.” He would put on his “jeans or leather pants, sometimes a codpiece, shirt, vest, studded leather cuffs, black leather jacket—and return to the West Village.”

Mapplethorpe’s men—the subjects of his photographs—took it even further. They were usually naked; the human body being the greatest site of “frenzy and form.” I didn’t want my friend to go through the world naked! What I saw in his aesthetic that I wanted for her was a costume that would express to the world, “I am not of your kind. I am of my own kind.” I wanted her to dress in some way that might express to some businessman who looked at her in the street, “I do not share your values”; that she was not somebody he could take home and stick in the kitchen while he went out into the world.

Grunge’s message seems about personal comfort, while Mapplethorpe’s was about making people uncomfortable; not for no reason, but to refashion the culture into a place where his life and his values could find a home. If no space already exists for one’s values, one has to make a space for them by more aggressive means. All great artworks seem to do a kind of violence at first; they cut out a space for the values where there was no place before: they cut into the world. I wanted my friend to cut into the world as she walked through the streets.

My friend asked why Kenneth saw me as Mapplethorpe, so I wrote to ask. As we waited for his reply, my friend remarked, “After all, you wear fairly soft and unnoticeable clothes.” It was true. I was sitting before her in jeans and a black sweater. His reply came swiftly: he wasn’t talking about my clothes, but about my art, and the way it interacted with the contemporary moment the same way Mapplethorpe’s did.

My friend and I looked at each other. It was the end of the conversation. Clothes had nothing to do with it. Dressing “feminine” hadn’t gotten her into a relationship with a man who ended up being disrespectful of her time. She had fallen in love, and 12 years later, that’s where they were. No costume could prevent future sorrows in her life; could defend her against the unpredictability of what happens in love or against a future unhappiness. Was Mapplethorpe a happy guy? Was Kurt Cobain? It seemed to me in that moment that, at essence, all clothes symbolize the same thing: we are human. We are vulnerable. We cover up. We cannot avoid pain.