What happens on tour stays on tour” was the famous dictum of rascally rock stars in more unsavoury times. That’s not the case with Nirvana’s iconic Smiley T-shirt, however, which hit the merch stand in 1992, shortly after the release of the trio’s seminal sophomore album, Nevermind, and has rarely been out of the public conscious since. True, it does stay on tour, pulled out of wardrobes and dusted down for gigs some 25 years after Kurt Cobain took his own life, thereby calling time on the band. But it has also been passed on to a new generation, like a baton for those who don’t quite fit in.
The design was inspired partly by the smiley badge that took hold in the US during the early 1970s, the provenance of which is disputed. Various designers, including one in Nirvana’s hometown of Seattle, claim to have first drawn this beaming yellow logo. Wherever it came from, not long before Nirvana rose to prominence, it was adopted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in their comic-book opus Watchmen and then by the acid house scene, which gave it an ironic sheen and parked it firmly in the counter-cultural sphere.
Legend has it that Nirvana’s more bacchanalian take on the smiley was in turn lifted from the signage of a now defunct Seattle strip bar called The Lusty Lady (tag line “Have an erotic day!”). Another theory suggests it’s a doodle of Axl Rose, sketched by Cobain, which would make sense since Cobain was fond of trolling the Guns N’ Roses frontman. The slogan on the back of the T-shirt, yellow on black in a bold Onyx font – “Flower sniffin, kitty pettin, baby kissin corporate rock whores” – could also be seen as a jibe at Rose’s expense, although it may well have been the band taking ownership of their place on the roster at Geffen Records. Back then, signing to a major label would have you tarnished as a sell-out, especially in notoriously snobbish alternative-music circles.
Cobain would have been 53 this year, which isn’t perhaps as old as it once was in the music industry. His band mate Dave Grohl is still recording and touring with other Nirvana alumni in Foo Fighters. But it is Cobain’s place in the 27 Club (musicians, actors and artists who have died at the age of 27) that has probably cemented this particular T-shirt’s enduring legacy. It’s an instantly recognisable design that captured a moment that should have lasted much longer.
Fashion has always tried to engage with this eternal youth appeal. Indeed, recently, representatives of Nirvana launched a copyright infringement claim against Marc Jacobs, which borrowed the band’s iconography for its Grunge Redux collection.
Additionally. The original official t-shirt release from the 90s, made in the US, on a Giant tag, costs over 1000 dkr on the vintage market today and the license reproductions from the 90s will cost you between 300 to 500 dkr. Nirvana still releases the shirt on it’s website. They don’t have it at the moment, but it sells out pretty quickly when they do. The problem here is that the new reproductions are made of an inferior quality compared with the originals.
Cobain noted in his famous published diary, “I use bits and pieces of other personalities to form my own” – We like to think that Cobain would have preferred people wearing the vintage alternative. Cobain himself wearing almost exclusively vintage clothing throughout his career mostly out of necessity in the beginning. (He was broke) but also in the attempt to rebel against commercialization and consumerism.
sauce: mr porter