Why Kurt Cobain's '90s cardigan is trending as WFH style

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On Nov. 18, 1993, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain ambled onto a stage at New York's Sony Music Studios to perform on "MTV Unplugged." Perched on a chair in a mohair, acrylic and Lycra cardigan the mossy color of a 1970s bathroom suite, he unwittingly created one of music's most emblematic fashion references.

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"It's funny that the most important rock star of a generation would have his most memorable moment on film dressed like Ward Cleaver from 'Leave it to Beaver,'" said Charles R. Cross, author of "Heavier Than Heaven," a Cobain biography. "And it's most likely he bought that cardigan from a thrift store in Olympia [Wash.] for a few dollars. That's how he bought almost all of his clothes." Mr. Cobain's saggy sweater embodied the style of Seattle's grunge scene and now, as work-from-home culture increasingly defines our times, that familiar knit is enjoying a revival.

As comfortable as your favorite hoodie but eminently cooler, roomy, mohair-blend cardigans emit WFH appeal. And you'll have no problem finding one — even if you don't frequent Pacific Northwest thrift stores. Myriad menswear brands featured Cobain-esque cardigans this season. An earthy ochre-brown take from French label Lemaire closely mimics the subdued original, for example, while Gucci accentuates its maximalist "geek chic" argyle design with chunky leather buttons. High-fashion iterations like those can range from the high three to low four figures, which, though far less than the $334,000 Mr. Cobain's cardigan fetched at auction in 2019, will strain grunge budgets. Somewhat thriftier types can find suitably slouchy, sub-$400 knits from such labels as Pringle of Scotland and Beams Plus.

American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 – 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program ‘MTV Unplugged,’ New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Mohair wasn't always associated with the counterculture. In the 1960s, the material, which comes from Angora goats, surged in the men's clothing market. Blended with wool, it added a slight sheen to suits, and later lent a whisper of plushness to highly textural knits. These "Mad Men"-era mohair sweaters tended to adhere to conservative motifs like argyle in quiet hues such as pistachio green and aubergine. Mr. Cobain's sweater style — nonchalant, almost sloppy — subverted the mohair cardigan's buttoned-up reputation.

"Mixing mohair with polyamides or acrylic, like Cobain's cardigan, makes it even softer, and the Lycra in the mix means it retains its shape," said Emma McClelland, co-director of Knitster LDN, a London atelier specializing in luxury knitwear production. "Those long fibers can be brushed for extra fluffiness. And, crucially, it also holds color really well."

Designers are taking advantage of such fibers' hunger for hues. Unlike Mr. Cobain's faded cardigan, many of this season's knits come in rich shades and inviting color combinations. The label Scott Fraser Collection stripes a Cobain-ish style in tone-on-tone blues. Etro, an Italian brand known for its complex patterns, has applied a multicolored check to its jacquard knit — and added a contrasting placket for a preppy touch. Meanwhile, Japan's Needles orchestrated blues, grays and reds into a "psychedelic" patterned knit that's guaranteed to pop on a Zoom call.

As evidenced by musician Tyler, the Creator — a card-carrying member of the cardi cognoscenti — mohair sweaters play well with all kinds of looks. He's worn his relaxed knits with everything from a simple white T-shirt and jeans to a more dandyish golf cap and khakis combo. To skew your sweater in a retro direction, mix it with patterned wool pants and a button-down shirt. To excel at winter layering, venture out into the cold in a duffle coat unbuttoned to reveal a glimpse of patterned mohair. (If it's truly freezing, of course, sacrifice the opportunity to showcase your ace layering skills and button up.)

"Cobain's mohair sweater is the perfect garment for the eclectic way we're dressing at the moment," offered Gaby Day, designer of heritage knitwear brand Pringle of Scotland. She likes to layer Nirvana-esque knits with contrasting colors, textures and prints. "That whole look originated from rummaging in secondhand stores," she said. In other words, you can confidently throw one on over whatever mismatched outfit you've been wearing since March and still achieve rock-star levels of style. And in the Covid era, its versatility adapts equally well to video calls, where it appears "presentable," and couch sprawling, where…who cares? The mohair cardigan is essentially a Snuggie that will keep you warm and comforted all the way from your morning coffee through a WFH day to a night spent bingeing Netflix.

The key to a successful cardigan ensemble: Don't overthink it. Mr. Cobain understood this well — he casually tossed that thrifted sweater over a printed tee and instantly became a fuzzed-out fashion icon.

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.

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