This year being Nirvana Nostalgia Season, I’ve been thinking about one of the most iconic pieces of clothing of my youth: Kurt Cobain’s enormous, red-and-black Fred Krueger-style striped sweater, as pictured above. Greasy blonde hair and this sweater say “Kurt” as much as a moptop and a collarless jacket say “Beatle”. As a nerdy, fashion-fearing teen in the grunge 90s this sweater was everything I wished my clothes could be, a perfect example of Kurt’s effortless cool. I was way too self-conscious and shy to actually emulate him (plus, like a dope, I took to heart that 90s alterna-bullshit about not being a poseur), but I studied pictures of Kurt, how he dressed, wondering how I could recreate that alchemy in myself. I thought about this sweater. It was one of those “aspirational pieces”, as I think they’re called in Vogue, which I thought about every time I went shopping.
So when I saw Gus Van Sant’s Last Days I was, despite myself, a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong: I think Last Days is a really beautiful, amazing film, and to me one of the great costume movies. Michelle Matland and her team did an amazing job recreating iconic Cobain looks for Michael Pitt in the character of Blake, a sort of poetic alternate-dimension version of Kurt. Here’s Blake in his version of the Freddy Krueger sweater:
The difference, and to me it’s a huge difference, is that Blake’s sweater is entirely intact. Kurt’s, on the other hand, is absolutely disintegrating. Unforunately I haven’t been able to find many good pictures of the sweater online, but rest assured, I spent enough time looking at it, thinking about it, to know. Enormous holes had opened up at the elbows and the left shoulder; the end of the left sleeve was in unravelled tatters. These were like heiroglyphics to me, each bit of damage recording some event–a dive into the drums, a trip through the mosh pit, drunken high jinks of one kind or another. The damage was why I could never have Kurt’s sweater: even if I found the very same sweater, from the very same company, the very same assembly line, it wouldn’t have all this fascinating history encoded in it. That sweater was unique, haute couture; the couturier was Kurt’s wild rock-and-roll life.
I’m in the position in life where I’m both obliged and able to usually repair my clothes if they get damaged. But I always think long and hard before I do it. How does this hole look? Does it make this sweater more interesting? Do I want to forget that this happened because someone grabbed me during my friend Danny’s concert and threw me into a puddle of beer? I think the value of clothes does not necessarily decrease with cosmetic damage, the way it does with a car. Sentimental value is, after all, true value. Pants that wear out at the knees, or get stretched out by your belly, or get spattered with paint, what are they doing but becoming more yours? Each imperfection is like an in-joke, ratifying the relationship between you and your clothes. I think it’s beautiful.
Sci-fi fans love to tout the smoothness with which masters of the genre incorporate exposition into their plots. What could be more subtle than these little signs of life as it was lived before the story begins? The costumers of Last Days certainly knew the implicit-exposition value of such distressed clothes–I really love the fact that those plastic shades he’s wearing up there have been broken and taped back together–but for whatever reason, they decided to leave the sweater unscathed. Maybe it just goes to show the irreproducible nature of such a specific, well-beloved piece of clothing.