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A new trend emerging out of the hipper enclaves in New York may soon make it cool to be square. Normcore, a term coined by the trend-forecasting group K-Hole, describes an aesthetic that is marked by conformity rather than difference. Normcore privileges fitting in over standing out. However, this aesthetic should not be mistaken for simple conformity. The central tenet of normcore is to approach every sartorial occasion, whether that means donning a jersey and boardshorts at a football game or a three-piece suit to attend a board meeting, as if one were an acolyte of that style.
Normcore popped into the media spotlight in February after Fiona Duncan wrote a small feature about the emerging trend in New York Magazine. Duncan catalogued the proliferation of lukewarm neutrals and boxy, generic pieces among the city’s younger, and perhaps hipper, corridors. However, Duncan made a common mistake in her analysis of normcore, conflating it with
an older trend also explicated by K-Hole called “acting basic.” The mistake is understandable. Acting basic entails eschewing loud prints, bold colors and slim cuts in favor of plain, and usually neutral-colored clothing with a relaxed or even baggy fit. The relaxed pants and oversized plain shirts sported by Jerry Seinfeld in his television show “Seinfeld” are often touted the prime examples of the neutral tones and boxy look that acting basic encompasses.
In a response to the article, K-Hole approvingly cited a Facebook post by Christopher Glazek. Glazek posted, “normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post- authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness.”
The distinction between boxy, generic basics and “sameness” is a crucial one that has been either ignored or elided in many of the trend pieces that followed Duncan’s article. Normcore does not mean donning the wardrobe of Midwestern tourists circa 1992 nor does it mean sporting the same New Balance sneakers and hoodies favored by
the brothers of the fraternity down the road. Flux and ephemerality, not stasis and permanence, are the cornerstones of the normcore approach. Normcore is an approach to fashion, not a style in and of itself.
The core value of the normcore aesthetic is that one style a person adopts is just as authentic, or perhaps inauthentic, as any other. The same person who rocks shredded jeans and a grimy Melvins shirt to a hardcore show could just as easily slip on pastel shorts and make themself at home at a country club brunch. The most profound aspect of normcore is the idea that clothes can just be clothes. In a culture where you are what you wear, normcore tells us that we can be anyone we want to be. Moreover, each version of ourselves that we produce through sartorial choices is just as authentically us as the last version. Normcore tears fashion away from formal prescriptions and shoves it into the realm of post-modernism.
While K-Hole’s claim that norm- core represents a “post-authenticity” aesthetic may seem cynical, it succinctly
captures the sense of freedom and paranoia that often hovers over post- digital social spaces. As the acclaimed documentary and MTV reality show “Catfish” has shown over and over again, Facebook, forums and dating websites allow us to be whoever we want to be whenever we want. While acting basic celebrates the pleasures of the generic, normcore takes pastiche and implodes it. The result is a totally authentic embrace of squareness.
There is a slight class element that discussions about normcore have yet to address. There is an implicit understanding that practitioners of normcore will have the financial means to stuff their closets with every sartorial contingency imaginable and be attuned to the subtleties of each style they are looking to don. That takes time, resources and education. It turns out that it takes a lot of thought and planning to be exactly like everyone else.