Dubbed by Hollywood as the ‘Vegan James Dean’, have you ever wondered how to dress like 90s grunge style icon River Phoenix? Here’s our style guide on all the best tips and tricks for getting that ultimate 90s grunge look.
River Phoenix was one of the first celebrities to use his fame and fortune to raise the profile of unethical issues such as animal rights and environment concerns. He pioneered the way for the swarms of other wealthy people that came after him in to do the same.
He was an early 90s grunge icon who made headway on-screen as well as off receiving Oscar and Golden Globe nominations alongside various other accolades before meeting his untimely death in 1993 when he collapsed outside Johnny Depp’s club The Viper Rooms on the Sunset Strip and died of a drug overdose within minutes.
What is Grunge?
Other than baggy jeans and long hair, grunge is also a genre of alternative rock music that came out of America, and Seattle in particular, during the late 1980s and 90s. Grunge music was a fusion of heavy metal and punk sounds. Grunge usually consists of heavy distorted guitar sounds with a slow methodic tempo.
Grunge bands typically sang about topics such as social alienation, disenfranchisement, social inequality and a want for freedom. During the 80s and 90s, many young people in America suffered from poor economic backgrounds. The young people that experienced this are the ones who went on to produce the rock genre known as grunge.
However, other than just music from famous bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, grunge also produced a generational style that still resonates in fashion today.
How to be Grunge
Do you feel disenfranchised with the world and country you live in? If so, then during the 90s you could easily have been grunge. Therefore, you have little respect for typical social constructions like fashion and want to make it obvious that you put minimal effort into your appearance.
Fortunately for you, that’s only what people saw grunge as being in the 90s. Grunge music and culture have generally disappeared now that we’re in the 21st Century. However, 90s grunge style remains in a way that still influences huge parts of men’s fashion today. No one represents this better than the grunge style icon River Phoenix.
Nowadays his fateful death often overshadows his humanitarian efforts. However, River’s enduring and classic style has, fortunately, stood the test of time. A low maintenance approach to the way he dressed suited the grunge mentality down to a tee, and with a striking resemblance to Kurt Cobain (is it just us?) his lax and effortless style almost paved the way for the mid-late 90s grunge scene.
The whole point of early 90s grunge, as well as its fashion, is that it’s supposed to look as though there has been minimum thought and effort put into what you’re wearing because basically, there hasn’t been any. Early 90s grunge is comfortable, unkempt and it doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
When it comes to grunge clothes, remember to avoid anything that appears too high quality or professional. If the point of grunge is to appear as if you don’t care about what you’re wearing, then you shouldn’t be wearing anything that suggests otherwise. Don’t go around buying any high-end brands such as Gucci or Louis Vitton. These names have become famous for using large and in your face branding styles. It won’t look very effortless if you’re walking around in an expensive Gucci coat.
Shopping in vintage stores or charity shops are a good way to get grunge style clothing. Although the majority of the items will be second hand and may not fit properly, they will present the non-caring attitude that you’re trying to give off.
When deciding how to dress grunge, the first port of call is going to be the plaid shirt. When dressing in a 90s style, the oversized plaid shirt is a piece of clothing that everyone must have. Although this staple piece looks great in more or less any outfit, it can be teamed with dark jeans and a checked blazer for a smarter look.
A good quality blazer in a modest, neutral colour, will stand the test of time. Whether worn with a jumper, or plaid shirt, there is practically zero effort required. A boxy fit – wide shoulders and a long length – will keep the silhouette of your blazer very much in the 90s.
When it comes to dressing like River Phoenix, jeans are going to be an extremely important part of your outfit. Denim jeans are a symbol that is iconically associated with the blue collar workers of America. Something that grunge style taps into perfectly.
Why not try wearing some baggy or ripped jeans. Although I would normally tell you to leave baggy jeans back in 2004, if worn correctly they can still work. However, be careful, if the jeans are too baggy then they can make you appear stumpy and boyish.
Fortunately, ripped jeans are definitely in style at the moment. As an alternative to baggy jeans, why not try wearing some straight or skinny cut jeans with some tears in them. Combine these with a white T-shirt underneath a plaid shirt and some black converse for an ultimate grunge look.
Nothing emulates a feeling of 90s nostalgia greater than the classic black and white high top converse sneaker. Favoured by everyone and anyone who could get their hands on a pair during the 1990s they became the sneaker of a generation.
Due to their classic and simple design, they were perhaps most notably favoured by grunge icons like Nirvana and Sonic Youth.
It is well worth investing in a pair of these classic sneakers if you haven’t already; they are easy to wear, versatile and will not let you down if they are called upon. When you’re rushing out the door and grabbing the first pair of shoes you can see the black and white Converse plimsoll will definitely have your back. Plus, if this wasn’t good enough, they go with pretty much anything.
Worn with pin rolled black jeans (the ultimate grunge staple aside from distressed acid wash denim) to reveal white socks, a loose fitting baggy shirt in a plain and muted colour leans towards the understated minimalism of this style.
The reason River Phoenix is named as such a monumental style icon of the early 90s is that he had so much conviction in his style and identity. The way he dressed don’t differ massively because he had such a defined look.
In all of River’s outfits, he would wear clothing in a way that appeared completely effortless. Despite this, a level of refined style remained within them. Although grunge is often synonymous with being dishevelled and dirty, River’s outfits never were. Despite his disturbed and unhealthy actions out of the limelight, River still looked great.
The same rules apply here. Try wearing basic pieces like a pinstripe shirt or a pair of black trousers in simple colours. The way that you layer these clothes can be a great way to reaffirm River’s natural sense of style. River knew what looked good on him and how to wear it. If you can do the same then you’ll have a grunge style in no time.
Although the Converse high tops are a staple of 80s grunge fashion, why not opt for Dr Martens as a shoe alternative that will sharpen the style without compromising on the lackadaisical nuance of early 90s grunge.
Grunge Outfit Ideas
Even the most anti-Hollywood A-listers have to attend star-studded events and awards ceremonies (especially when they’re being nominated for awards left, right and centre).
The apathetic approach River usually took to dressing takes a shift in a different direction and black tie attire gets a makeover. The look remains understated and modest with a black Crombie layered over a plain white shirt buttoned to the top. Doc Marten’s remain the alternative shoe of choice for the definitive grunge dresser.
Although they don’t have many, accessories are an important part of any grunge outfit. Once again, the main thing to remember with any grunge accessories, is that they have to be understated and appear effortlessly.
A great accessory that was often styled by grunge icons such as Kurt Cobain is the beanie hat. Although the beanie can be tricky to wear, if you combine it with other grunge style outfits, like a plaid shirt, then it can look great.
As strange as it may seem, another of the main accessories for a proper grunge style, is your actual hair. Outgrown, mussed up hair adds to the effortlessness and simplicity of early 90s style. Straighteners practically didn’t exist to grunge style. Tousle and mess up your hair if you’re going for a grunge look.
The uncanny resemblance to a Kurt Cobain fashion suggests that River clearly knew what he was doing with his hair. To emulate this work, use texturizing clay through your hair to add body and lift (Uppercut hair products would be a good option for this). You’re trying to create a kind of unwashed coarseness that looks as though you’ve spent even less time on your hair than you have on your outfit.
How to Dress like River Pheonix
- Don’t put much effort in. The whole point of a grunge style is that you don’t care about a lot.
- Get a pair of high top converses. The high top converse plimsol in black and white is the staple grunge footwear.
- Get second-hand clothing. Vintage and charity shops are your friends. If they don’t fit, it still matches the aesthetic.
- Wear ripped jeans. You’re better off going for some skinny or straight jeans with an acid wash or ripped look.
- Purchase a flannel or plaid shirt. This is a great item of grunge clothing.
- Be confident. River Phoenix looked so good in what he wore because he was confident and believed in his style.
On That Note
River Phoenix’s style consists of a laid back, casual attitude to dressing that focuses on wardrobe staples in classic and muted colours, thrown together. Although River’s tragic death at the age of 23 has often overshadowed his legacy, his style has remained immortal. Remember to have conviction in what you’re wearing – River’s style has such timeless appeal because he was confident about who he was and what he was wearing. He never let the clothes wear him and that mentality has outlasted the ‘fashion fads’ that followed him.