Unpure, Unchaste: Liz Phair Fashion of the Early 1990s

I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of Liz Phair until about 2002, when I was a sophomore in high school, long past the heyday of early 90s music. I’m not quite too sure how I stumbled upon her third album whitechocolatespaceeggwhich was released in 1998. This album was released after the arguable monumental Exile in Guyville in 1993, making it 24 years old today. So the Phair I knew I was aware of was significantly different than the Liz Phair of the early 90s. And even more different than the iteration of Phair in 2002, which was significantly more poppy and mainstream.

At 15, her music was a revelation. I remember hearing the song “Flower,” and thinking, “Wow you can say stuff like that? It’s OK to express those feelings?” The song today still feels a bit scandalous, but yet encapsulates a lot of what love feels like. Not even young love, but early love.

Every time I see your face
I think of things unpure, unchaste
I want to fuck you like a dog
I’ll take you home and make you like it

Liz Phair, “Flower”

In our image driven society, it feels odd to think about how I never concerned myself about what Phair looked like outside of what was on her album covers. Sure, I had the Internet, but it never crossed my mind to look up photos of her. So when I sat down to visit (not even revisit) the style of Liz Phair, I had no idea really what I was going to encounter.

I have to say, I was a bit shocked. Her look and image seemed very scandalous for the early 90s, and even though it’s tame by today’s standards, it still has that “Fuck everyone, I’m doing what I want” feeling that stands the test of time. It’s the type of sexy and scandalous that doesn’t quite give much, or anything away but still left me feeling uncomfortable in a way that doesn’t quite feel possible today.

I wish there were more photos of Phair from the 90s in the Internet, because they are, honestly, the best. They seem to capture the feeling of her music, the time, the mix of rage and femininity. Not to mention her style was on point without being over the top. Acid washed jeans, plain tees, body suits, metallic mini skirts. In these 90s photos, she never seems overshadowed by her clothes, nor does she ever seem to be saying, “I don’t care about fashion.” Feels like a hard line to walk and still be a meaningful musician.

And some reflections on Phair’s career would seem to say she didn’t walk the line well, that her sexuality and too-strong feminism backfired when she tried to expand and reach a wider audience. Perhaps this is what pushed her to be more poppy in the early 2000s with releases of “Why Can’t I,” which shared lyrics about a softer, less fuck-focused side of love. She’s still hinting at it, though in a seemingly way less clever way with lyrics like, “What if this is just the beginning / We’re already wet, and we’re gonna go swimming.”

Fashion-wise, Phair still seems to be trying recapture that scandalous/sexy feel she had in the early 1990s, but these are different times and somehow, it just feel like it’s trying to hard. I don’t want this part of the post to detract from how iconic her style was in the 1990s, so you can go and google new photos for yourself and see what I’m talking about.

Liz Phair definitely captured a feeling of the early 1990s, this feeling of uncertainty and anger and angst and change so many different things that built up in America through the Reagan and Bush presidencies. The music still stands up today, and while not all of the clothing still does, it definitely helped capture a feeling in time.

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