Riot Grrrl

  1. Philosophy of Riot Grrrl
  2. Revolution Grrrl Style Now!
  3. Fashion Against Fashion
  4. Image Gallery

From its inception, the punk movement had some female and feminist voices. However, the movement was always male-centric, with most women being either groupies (like the much reviled Nancy Spungen) or impresarios (like Anya Phillips).

In the early 90s, when riot grrrl began, female punks tended to be lead singers or groupies. This led to the perception that girls couldn't play music, and should act mostly as sex symbols. Young women were fed up with this, and wanted to create music––and a scene––of their own.

The movement came from the Olympia, Washington, college music scene. Antecedents to the movement appeared in San Francisco, Vancouver and other cities. Kat Bjelland, of Babes in Toyland, inspired much of the movement's aesthetic, although she never directly participated in it.


The term was coined by Jen Smith, an early member of the band Bratmobile, when she wrote "This summer's going to be a girl riot" to lead singer Allison Wolfe. Later, members of Bratmobile collaborated with Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail to create a zine called Riot Grrrl. The name stuck.

The Philosophy of Riot Grrrl

There’s a whole girl culture that exists when you’re little. There girls have their own scene. And it always gets totally fucked up when girls start dating boys. Like two of them like the same guy. Or they just start dating guys and that becomes their life. Then they get married and that’s traditionally how women get into these situations where they are totally separated from each other in these domestic spheres. What we want to say is, "No, that’s not happening to us. This is girl culture and these are our rituals."
– Tobi Vail, of Bikini Kill

The Riot Grrrl Manifesto emphasized female solidarity. Early zines like "Girl Germs" and "Bikini Kill" dealt with traditionally feminist issues, such as domestic violence, rape and male domination.

Girl Germs zine, 1990s.

Unsurprisingly, for a movement started by people in their early twenties, the philosophy of riot grrrl was enthusiastic and a bit jejune. In early zines, writers like Kathleen Hanna and Allison Wolfe spoke out against racism, sexism and other -isms, violence, peer pressure and discrimination in general, with great outrage, if not coherence. Many articles dealt with personal experiences, as well as explaining what feminism meant to the author.

Part of the movement was against the "anti-sell-out," purer-and-cooler-than-thou atmosphere of punk, and a somewhat similar atmosphere in traditional academic feminism. Although members of the movement claim there was no set of rules, I can find no evidence of politically conservative, libertarian, or "pro-women's rights, non-feminist" bands in this movement. Rather than rebelling against academic feminism, most members of the movement seemed to accept its dogma.

This philosophy was later co-opted and watered down by the Spice Girls, and turned into "Girl Power!", a phrase which occasionally showed up in Riot Grrrl zines.

Revolution Grrrl Style Now!

Kathleen Hanna, of Bikini Kill.

Fashion Against Fashion

What did Revolution Grrrl Style Now! look like? Well, it looked like many things. Unlike punks or hippies, riot grrrls co-opted many elements from other subcultures to create their own unique look. There was no, there is no, riot grrrl uniform. Elements of punk, no wave, heavy metal, grunge, kinderwhore and butch lesbian fashion went into many a grrrl's (and boi's) wardrobe.

Many feminists, then as now, want to be judged by their personality, not their appearance. This doesn't mean they neglected expressing themselves. In point of fact, many third wave feminists rebelled against this aspect of second wave feminism, where looking sexy was seen as a crime. Instead, third wave feminists recognized that sartorial self-expression, like all other forms of self-expression, could be a powerful political weapon.

Contrast was an important element in riot grrrl fashion. Women with dreadlocks, shaved heads or mohawks would combine this with a dress and combat boots. A miniskirt could be combined with a shirt showing a muscular male torso. Sexuality was often emphasized, though through an aggressively female point of view.

Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill, sometimes wore "slutty" clothes, such as Catholic schoolgirl skirts, while writing words on her body like "SLUT" and "INCEST." According to Hanna, this was to drain the words of their negative connotations, as well as to preempt the thoughts of young men looking at the photos.

Although the originators of kinderwhore fashion were not part of the riot grrrl movement (especially Courtney Love, who hated it), it influenced some members. Early videos of Bikini Kill show the bassist wearing a vintage babydoll dress, complete with a Peter Pan collar. The main difference, as far as I can tell, was that riot grrrl was political, while kinderwhore was more of an artistic and aesthetic movement.

Grunge music emerged from the same or overlapping scenes in the Pacific Northwest. Some women wore the then-fashionable flannel shirts, and the standard uniform for nineties alternative musicians: large black band t-shirt, black pants and long hair.

In 1990s Washington, makeup was no longer taboo for feminists. However, heavy makeup was out of fashion throughout the early 90s; most alternative rockers, even goth rockers, went for a more natural, low-maintenance aesthetic. Judging by concert photos, many young riot grrrls wore red, pink or "weird" (purple, neon, black) lipstick, with maybe a bit of black eyeshadow.

Image Gallery

Bikini Kill

Kathleen Hanna.

Bikini Kill

Two members of Bikini Kill

Kathleen Hanna. Photo in public domain.


Bratmobile. Photo from now-defunct band website.

Huggy Bear

Huggy Bear.



L7 bandmembers.


Related Reading:

Girl's Punk Hairstyles

Kathleen Hanna

Riot Grrrl Manifesto

Teddy Girls

Punk Models

Vivienne Westwood Quotes

Audrey Hepburn Quotes


Black Lipstick

Photos of Kathleen Hanna from the Bikini Kill archive.

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