Courtney Love: Bringing a subversive edge to 90's fashion By Emma Frank

Courtney Michelle Harrison was destined for a difficult life, but through her music and sheer strong presence in the 90s, she brought to the world a fierce ‘this is me - deal with it!’ attitude that was impossible not to respect.

As young as five years old, she was drawn into the alternative music scene, appearing in a photo on the back of The Grateful Dead’s album cover ‘Aoxomoxea’. Her father was briefly tour manager to The Dead and along with Courtney’s mother, they were hippies leading an experimental life in the mid 60’s, with allegations later being made that her father gave her LSD as a social experiment when she was just a toddler. Regardless of whether this was true, Courtney was in for a wild ride from early on.

At sixteen she moved out of home, becoming estranged from her mother and changed her surname to ‘Love’. Working at a strip club to support herself, she began to make herself known in the local music scene with her outgoing and confronting antics. At eighteen she turned up at a Faith No More concert wearing a second-hand wedding dress. Through sheer tenaciousness she demanded to be in their band and became their lead singer for a few months, later to be kicked out because the band reportedly wanted a more ‘male’ energy.

Deciding she wanted to 'start an all female band to take over the world', in ‘85 Courtney joined forces with Kat Bjelland and Jennifer Finch to form Sugar Babydoll. It was short-lived however due to in-fighting caused by too many strong personalities, so at twenty-four Courtney moved to L.A. and after placing an ad in the paper for band members, she formed Hole. Hole became the outlet where she could vent the sense of alienation and anger felt her whole life.

Occurring concurrently in the early ‘90’s another force was building; rising like a tidal wave out of a music scene that was male dominated to say the least, came Riot Grrrl, an underground punk feminist movement that carved out a space by women and for women to perform and make music. Although not a self-proclaimed part of the movement, Courtney was nevertheless responding to the same influences and triggers as Riot Grrl groups Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, L7 and Babes in Toyland (the band Bjelland went on to form). In ’91 Hole’s first album 'Pretty on the Inside' was released, packed with angry confrontational lyrics and heavy themes drawn from Courtney’s life, which she issued in a fierce snarl.

Later that year Courtney developed an infatuation with Kurt Cobain, sending him a heart shaped box filled with miniature gifts. Kurt didn’t respond but went on to write the song of the same name for Nirvana. They later met in person at a gig and fell in love; what followed was a rollercoaster of hard drugs, wild behaviour and repeated rehab check-ins. Fighting to keep custody of their daughter, battling with drug addiction and the pressure of fame on them both finally culminated with Kurt’s suicide in ’94. This was followed two months later by the overdose of Hole’s guitarist Kristen Pfaff, throwing Courtney into turmoil. Hole’s next album 'Live Through This' was released not long after, its title proving eerily fitting.

Hole continued to have more commercial success with subsequent albums, eventually disbanding in 2002. Courtney went on to feature in assorted film roles and pursued a solo career, but continued to battle with her inner demons and addiction well into her forties. In more recent years she released a clothing line riffing on her style in the 90’s, in collaboration with Sophia Amoruso, and this year was presented the ‘Icon Award’ by NME, deemed by the publication as "one of the most influential singers in alternative culture of the last 30 years”.

The unique sense of style that Courtney formed in her youth has become legendary and influenced hoards of alternative young women in the decades to come. She was the forerunner of an aesthetic that later came to be known as ‘Kinderwhore’. It was a look that took the 60’s feminine good girl image and turned it on its head with a sour smirk of punk DIY subversion. What was left was the rollicking image of female power in the form of Ms. Love, with her crimson lipstick, smudged eyeliner, messy bottle-blonde hair and most importantly attitude.

Her initial style influences could be said to be drawn in part from outfits worn by Carroll Baker in the (then controversial) 1950’s film Baby Doll. The film contained implied sexual themes and Baker’s character - a 19 year old platinum blonde, is seen wearing soft feminine dresses of pale cotton and short frilly satin nightgowns. The other key inspiration cited by Courtney was the style of Christina Amphlett, Australia’s own rebel of rock from 80s group Divinyls. Christina pushed the boundaries of what was then acceptable, wearing short school girl uniforms on stage whilst moving in provocative sexualised ways.

Left: Carroll Baker in Baby Doll. Middle and right: Christina Amphlett from Divinyls

Some of her most interesting key looks…

Perhaps the most iconic of Courtney’s looks, were her frequently worn collection of ‘Peter Pan’ collar dresses; doll-like dresses with a prominent white collar as the feature. These dresses originated in the 1960s and in the late 80’s/ early 90’s would have still been fairly easy to find in thrift stores.

In the images below we see the influence of Carroll Baker’s wardrobe in Baby Doll: pastel cotton vintage dresses with subtle floral prints, satin mini dresses (which in the 90’s came to in fact be known as ‘Babydoll’ dresses), worn with a punk twist; Courtney adding black stilettos, harsh red lipstick or a black bra showing contrastingly above a low-cut dress.

Also tying in with the kinderwhore aesthetic was the look where she would team a cutesy mini dress with white or red knee-high schoolgirl socks, or low white frilly socks, often worn with patent Mary Jane shoes. The influence of Christina Amphltet’s provocative schoolgirl outfits worn on stage are apparent here.

Courtney adapting the slip as daywear has gone down in history, and is a look she repeatedly came back to throughout the 90s. Appropriating the silky garments originally meant for underwear or sleep wear, she transformed them into a subversive fashion statement of rebellion and sexuality.

Cardigans were a grunge staple for many an alternative youth in the early 90s and Courtney often wore hers with, and in contrast to, feminine pastel vintage dresses. Her cardigans were often oversized, worn-in looking and torn at the sleeve.

In true punk form, she was known to sometimes write on her body before gigs and going out - using lipstick or marker pens, scrawling a word across her arm bitch, slut or witch; this was her subversive way of citing clichés of the roles women have been seen to play throughout history. On one occasion she even wore an old vintage doll attached to her outfit at the waist.

Courtney Love created a legacy of unique and subversive dress style and an essential challenge of the status quo in her music. In her own words:

I'm not a woman. I'm a force of nature.

Banner image by Emma. All other images via pinterest.