Hardcore Norm: Because dressing different is such a cliché

Guest post by Jenka Gurfinkel
Art by Curtis Mead
Art by Curtis Mead

“The kids are doing the normcore,” my friend Quang said, trying out the new phrase with a deliberate, old fart dialect.
Only a few moments earlier I had tossed off the word like common parlance.

“‘Normcore?'” he had repeated, making sure he’d heard correctly.

“Yeah,” I explained, “It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s us, now.”

A shockingly pleasant March afternoon had arrived in Boston that day, on the heels of a cold that had felt like osteoporosis. A decade in LA had turned me into a wimp. I had forgotten how I’d ever managed to live through this in my youth.

I had grown up here. In high school I discovered raves. By college I was throwing them in 20,000 square foot warehouses in Dumbo. After that, I moved out to the west coast and managed a vaudeville circus troupe, produced electronic music festivals, and worked with a bunch of bands, among other things. In the span of the past decade I saw the niche “electronica” genre evolve into mainstream “EDM;” I saw the circus subculture infiltrate pop performance acts, and the signature, post-apocalyptic, tribal fashion aesthetic originated within the Burning Man community become a major fashion trend.

But that day in Boston, in 2014, hanging out with friends who had come up through the rave, circus, and goth subcultures, you could hardly tell where any of us had been. What we wore now was nondescript. Non-affiliated. Normal.

The week before, at a craft beer tasting party at an indie advertising agency in Silver Lake, a sculpture artist was remarking about recently looking through photos of style choices from the aughts. “What was I thinking,” she said in bewilderment. That evening she was wearing a black tank top, and, like, pants. Maybe three quarter length? Or not? Maybe black jeans? Or not-jean pants? I couldn’t recall. Perhaps, I thought, this was just a symptom of getting older. There was some kind of sartorial giving a shit phase that we had all grown out of. But it turned out this, too, was a trend. Kids, too young to have grown out of anything, were dressing this way.

“By late 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to spot the Downtown chicks you’d expect to have closets full of Acne and Isabel Marant wearing nondescript half-zip pullovers and anonymous denim,” wrote Fiona Duncan, in a February New York Magazine article titled, “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion:”

I realized that, from behind, I could no longer tell if my fellow Soho pedestrians were art kids or middle-aged, middle-American tourists. Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfortable sneakers, both types looked like they might’ve just stepped off an R-train after shopping in Times Square. When I texted my friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on the latest urban camouflage, I got an immediate reply: “lol normcore.”

Normcore—it was funny, but it also effectively captured the self-aware, stylized blandness I’d been noticing. Brad’s source for the term was the trend forecasting collective (and fellow artists) K-Hole. They had been using it in a slightly different sense, not to describe a particular look but a general attitude: embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for “difference” or “authenticity.”

Oh my god, I thought reading this: this is me.

In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, published in 2004, cultural critics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter examined the inherent contradiction in the idea that counterculture was an opposition to mass consumer culture. Not only were they not opposed, Heath and Potter explained, they weren’t even separate. Alternative culture’s obsession with being different — expressing that difference through prescribed fashion products and subcultural artifacts — had, in fact, helped to create the very mass consumer society the counterculture believed itself to be the alternative to.

“To me, Nike’s famous swoosh logo had long been the mark of the manipulated,” wrote Rob Walker, author of 2008′s Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy And Who We Are, “A symbol for suckers who take its ‘Just Do It’ bullying at face value. It’s long been, in my view, a brand for followers. On the other hand, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star had been a mainstay sneaker for me since I was a teenager back in the 1980′s, and I stuck with it well into my thirties. Converse was the no-bullshit yin to Nike’s all-style-and-image yang. It’s what my outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Cobain wore. So I found [Nike’s] buyout [of Converse] disheartening…. but why, really, did I feel so strongly about a brand of sneaker–any brand of sneaker?”

In response to Buying In, I’d written, “Whether we’re choosing to wear Nikes, Converse, Timberlands, Doc Martens, or some obscure Japanese brand that doesn’t even exist in the US, we’re deliberately saying something about ourselves with the choice. And regardless of how “counter” to whatever culture we think we are, getting to express that differentiation about our selves requires buying something.”

But that was five years ago. A funny thing happened on the way to the mid twenty-teens. The digital era ushered in an unprecedented flood of availability — of both information and products. This constant, ubiquitous access to everything — what Chris Anderson dubbed the “Long Tail” in his 2006 book of the same name – had changed the cultural equation. We had evolved, as Anderson predicted, “from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” With the widespread proliferation of internet access, mass culture got less mass, and niche culture got less obscure. We became what Anderson called a “massively parallel culture: millions of microcultures coexisting and interacting in a baffling array of ways.” On this new, flattened landscape, what was there to be counter to?

We’re realizing that alternativeness, as a means for authentic self expression, is futile.

“Normcore isn’t about rebelling against or giving into the status quo,” Duncan concludes, “It’s about letting go of the need to look distinctive.”

In our all-access, always connected, globalized world, obscurity is scarce. When everything is accessible, nothing is alternative.

“In the 21st century,” Rob Walker wrote back in 2008, not recognizing the quickly approaching end of counterculture, “We still grapple with the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. We all seek ways to resolve this fundamental tension of modern life.”

In 2014, normcore is one solution we’ve found to resolve it.

This is an excerpt from Jenka’s blog, social-creature.com. Read the full post here.

Comments on Hardcore Norm: Because dressing different is such a cliché

  1. I can never tell whether this whole “normcore” thing is real, or just some kind of big elaborate joke that young, hip coastals are playing on us boring olds in Flyoverville. Poe’s law?

  2. Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s a real thing or not, either. If anything, maybe it will help some kids be bullied less for their cheap, nondescript, off-brand clothing?

    I’ve read a couple of articles on the subject, and they all seem to define it differently, from clothing bought in drug stores to brands like L.L. Bean, Jansport, etc. As long as it’s worn ironically, of course.

    All I have to say is: Tevas for LIFE. I’ve been wearing them non-ironically for the past 17ish years of my life.

  3. “With the widespread proliferation of internet access, mass culture got less mass, and niche culture got less obscure. ”

    This This This – so much.

    This has changed my life so much for the better….realizing that there are communities out there (like this one) where I don’t feel like an outsider, just made me feel less crazy all the time, which in turn helped me fit in better everywhere. Knowing both where and how to find people like me (god bless the internets) has opened up my world in ways that I never dreamed were possible….

    Thanks for putting it to words!

    • Yeah, the need to advertise your counter-culture/subculture with your clothes isn’t as necessary any more. That said, when I started at my current job I gravitated toward the people who had non-natural hair colors (pink, purple, blue, etc.) because the odds were better that I’d get along with them than the average unknown new coworker.

      • My dad used to ask me what reasons I had for my facial piercings, and I used to say that beyond simply liking how they look, they attract others who might have similar interests and they repel those who I probably don’t want to bother with. As such things have become mainstream though this is less of a factor, but I’m still more likely to approach people with tattoos or piercings or funky hair as potential friends.

  4. I read a really, really interesting counterpoint about normcore the other day: http://www.thestylecon.com/2014/03/03/normcore-bullsht/

    I think there is something to the distinction between people who wear “normal” clothing because they don’t have time, funds, or inclination to focus on something else, and the people who do the normcore thing in order to make some sort of statement. What other markers do they display to show they still “belong”? Is it because they buy their plain t-shirts at Target or Uniqlo instead of Walmart? Their fleece is North Face instead of random no-name brand? And how do they keep it looking clean and youthful instead of something that will be judged sloppy? (I suspect restrictive Western body type ideals have a lot to do with the last one.) It reminds me a lot of the whole “I spend hours making it look like my hair/makeup/what-have-you took no effort at all.”

    I also wonder how it’s tied to both the recent recession and the wild success of a few Silicon Valley founders, who wear/wore aggressively plain and casual things like fleeces (Zuckerberg) or black turtlenecks (Jobs). The logo-plastered Louis Vuitton monogram bags are definitely soooo early-00s, and it’s now considered “tacky” to overtly display brands like that in the US (maybe because those bags were no longer exclusive enough). Meanwhile, in other parts of the world it’s a sign that you’ve made it if you can show off those obvious signs of wealth.

    Blegh. Trends and fashun are complicated, yo. As someone who dressed very non-deliberately normcore (alright, normal and boring) through high school and college and is just tired of it, I’m still trying to figure it out.

    • The Far East is just as bad with the restrictive body image ideals as th West in my experience. It may be worse? It is also traditional in many places and it’s not Western-influenced (look at the history). Just a small quibble, really. But the body image thing is so much bigger than the West. I bring up the Far East because that is what I have personal experience with not because it’s the only non-western area with this problem

      • Good point! I am most intimately acquainted with US beauty norms myself, but I’ve heard anecdotes from first- and second-generation friends whose parents will outright tell them they’re too chubby. A global problem for sure.

  5. “Normcore isn’t about rebelling against or giving into the status quo,” Duncan concludes, “It’s about letting go of the need to look distinctive.”
    This is so true for me. I am in my forties and I was seriously into punk/light goth in the 80’s and as I got older I saw my self sliding more and more into looking and dressing normal, it was kind of horrifying sometimes. In my late twenties and even a in my early thirties I would long for the days of short crazy hair and my funky black wardrobe.
    At some point I realized I was putting all my creative energy into art instead of into maintaining a “look” and then I was really ok with looking oh so normal.
    I have kept my 80’s skull buckle Fluevogs all these years though, those beauties are works of art and an instant reminder of when I was the art I made.

  6. I commented on the FB post and was encouraged to share my sentiments here, so here we go!

    I’m not entirely comfortable with “normcore” for reasons that are partially touched upon above, but I’ll elaborate upon: basically, you can only be “normcore” only if you’re white, young, rich, and attractive. Otherwise, you’re just trashy, or bland, or whatever – the kind of person who is mocked on People of Walmart on a regular basis. Normcore is dependent on the person having a lot of privilege already, so that their “unfashionable” clothing is very clearly a statement, a choice, and an obvious contrast to their privileged self. If you’re a person of color, or poor, or overweight, and you wear the same thing that these “normcore” kids are wearing, you’re already expected to dress that way (that is, “unfashionably”), and so you’re ignored at best and mocked at worst.

      • And another thought that just came to me:

        How does one differentiate between someone who is “normcore” and someone who is a “basic bitch” (at least insofar as the white community defines the phrase, as its original definition in the black hip-hop community was quite different)? Isn’t a “basic bitch” someone who is incredibly bland in their appearance and interests – which is essentially the definition of “normcore” given here?

        • I just looked at the Urban Dictionary page for “basic bitch” and it’s pretty confusing and contradictory, but it could mean someone who blindly follows trends and labels, making them the opposite of “normcore.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WJFjXtHcy4 ; relevant lyrics are “Gucci Gucci, Loui Loui, Fendi Fendi, Prada. Basic bitches wear that shit so I don’t even botha,” cited on the UD page.

          It sounds to me like the people in power deciding that formerly exclusive, high-status brands are now cheapened by the fact that lots of people now own things with those labels, so they’re definitely no longer cool (see: LV monogram luggage). I’ve heard of a similar phenomenon with middle-class society having much stricter etiquette rules and using fancier language than upper-class society back in the early 1900s. The middle class tries to emulate what they think sounds high class, but meanwhile the high class both doesn’t have to prove themselves and won’t lose status by acting informal, and they’ve decided to change the rules of the game to keep the goalposts elusive. [citation needed, sorry]

          Maybe basic bitch used to mean bland and boring, but now it’s switched around so it’s someone who’s always just a few steps behind? Not sure.

    • Thank you so much for this. I also feel uncomfortable with “normcore” but I couldn’t place exactly why it felt icky to me, and you articulated it so well.

    • There is definitely a requirement for the embracer of ” normcore” to be privileged in certain ways. I think weight may be the most significant, though I’d never discount race. The thing is, I can picture non-white normcore but…normcore that’s not skinny is going to be perceived as sloppy. And poor.

      So yes– this is disturbing. But to me it’s not normcore as a particular concept or fashion that is disturbing. In fact, normcore seems like any other fashion concept. Any fashion concept requires certain kinds of privilege. It can work for a few skinny rich, probably but not necessarily white, the younger the better people. And it makes the rest of us look ridiculous– or, in the case if normcore–boring.

  7. “We had evolved, as Anderson predicted, “from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” With the widespread proliferation of internet access, mass culture got less mass, and niche culture got less obscure.”

    THIS so much. My roommate and I were just talking about how much things have changed in terms of “subculture” fashion in just the last six years or since we graduated high school. We were very much of “emo”/Hot Topic shoppers, which has become so much more mainstream commercialized with things like superheroes, Disney, Doctor Who, and other popular TV shows. That’s not to say that it wasn’t commercial before. It very clearly was, but in a much more understated way. The same goes for many other subcultures.

    • This is the same for me! When I was teen, Hot Topic looked a lot different than it does now. I dressed semi-goth in high school and I spent most of my money there buying skull jewelry and Tripp pants and band tees. Now it looks a LOT different and I see little kids in there. It’s funny that I care at all but my inner 16-year-old is still hurting a bit from that. So many things have gone mainstream in such a short period of time from my teens until my early twenties.

  8. Aw I didn’t know that Nike bought Converse- that sucks, I swore off Nike when they re-hired Michael Vick :-/ Then again, I haven’t worn my Chucks in a long time anyway (they were my constant shoe of choice for years when I was younger, but now I’m more a boots & flats gal.)

    Personally I kind of think it’s great that pretty much all niches are now sort of…equally regarded and catered to. I guess it’s not a bad thing if people no longer feel like they HAVE to spend a lot of time and attention on their clothes, but… I like niche fashion, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere either way 😉

  9. I’ve gone from punky goth hippie to that schlub who wears thrift store sweatshirts and plain old jeans. Though you can have my Docs when you pry them from my cold dead hands, because sensible comfortable footwear forever. Most of the people I encounter in my daily life these days, if they first meet me in the winter time when I’m covered up, are SHOCKED to see my tattooed body in a tank top in the summer because they just didn’t realize that I was “that kind of person.” My daily life involves a lot of running around and getting dirty, and it’s just easier to dress down than to worry about ruining clothes I paid too much for.

    But it’s nice to know that I’m not that girl who is too old and lazy to fix herself up like a parrot anymore…I’m “Normcore”. Hahaha. Excellent. Makes me think of how my old college friends and I used to sit around talking about how the only way our children could effectively rebel against us weirdo parents would be to grow up to be conservative buttoned down young republicans with stock portfolios and minivans.

  10. I agree with a lot of posters who mentioned issues with this normcore nonsense, particularly related to race, class, and weight. I think I’d also add geographic location to that list too. As a Midwesterner, I can tell you that this type of dress is practically uniform, expensive brands or not (people just seem to care less here about whether your fleece came from Addidas or Walmart).

    With regard to my personal fashion and feelings about counter-culture, even in high school I realized that non-conformity just for the sake of being a rebel was kind of silly, since it meant that you were still being controlled by what society deemed generally acceptable. Rejecting it all results in the same constraints as conformity, just in reverse. Because of that, I’ve tried to just do whatever suits my fancy, and not worry about whether it was counter-culture or conformity.

  11. I don’t get it. How can it be a subculture if it’s mainstream? Perhaps that’s the point. But then why define it?
    This topic has been baffling me since it came up in the reader comments earlier this year.
    I have also now been intrigued by the fact that other (ethnic/racial) subcultures in America couldn’t ever adopt normcore ideals. But I’m thinking they would be more subversive to be normcore than people of white privilege.
    Curiouser and curiouser…

  12. Huh. And here I was thinking I dress weird because I like the way it looks. Turns out I was mistaking having an opinion for just being a consumer.

  13. I’m sorry but am I the only one who finds this all the modern day version of our parents generation (& their parents generation,etc.) bemoaning the way we dressed? AND we even slapped a stupid name on it. Yeesh.

  14. I know that if I dressed the way I did when I was 9 years old now, I would look horrible. It was the early 90s, and all my clothes came from Sears because my grandfather had a credit account there that he let my parents use (we had no money, usually). Those turtlenecks, plain jeans, and off-brand sneakers would be 100% normcore now. Ugh. No thanks!

  15. I have to be honest, this whole discussion makes my head hurt.

    Perhaps it’s my advancing age, (Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!) but I, personally, have never seen fashion as much of a social statement at all. I wear clothes because a) they serve some functional purpose and/or b) I like them. That is why I will forever have a collection of steel-boned corsets that any goth girl would envy. Am I a goth girl? Not hardly. I just like the aesthetic. Does that make me a “poseur”? Maybe. Do I care?

    Honey, I’m closer to 40 than 30. I’ve got two kids, a job, bills to pay and my sanity to retain. Is it wrong to reply with a resounding”Fuck, no.”?

    Wear what you want. I plan to. There’s no need to slap a label on it, in my opinion.

    And yes, before I’m hoist on my own privilege, I am white, and relatively fit. And I recognize that that leaves me less vulnerable to people’s judgement and hatefulness than others of different ethnicities and weights/body types. And that sucks. Because every human body is beautiful, and everyone should be able to wear what they want. But the only way to combat that suckiness is, in my opinion, to get right up in the face of the “haters” and INSIST on our rights to wear what we like.

    But that’s me. And I’m combative like that on occasion.

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