Stuff those stonewashed jeans back into the drawer where they belong. Normcore is over. Or at least, so proclaims a recent spate of articles in The Observer, The Guardian, and High Snobiety. We gave it a try, these articles suggest. We attempted to fit in, to mute the worst of our fashion whore tendencies with the sedated hues of the suburban Midwest. But it didn’t work out. “Acting basic” just didn’t come naturally to us. Our baggy sweats soon became fitted. Our leisurewear became athleisure wear. Normcore slipped away so fast, it’s hard to remember it ever being there at all.
Which raises an interesting question: was it ever there at all? Did normcore actually happen? Or was it another trumped up trend invented by the very fashion journalists whose job it is to report on them? It’s hard to know, because in the breakneck world of fashion trend reporting, actually happening is a problematic concept at best.
What is known is this: In 2013, Greg Fong, Sean Monahan, Emily Segal, Chris Sherron, and Dean Yago—five lower Manhattanites with essentially useless arts degrees they had been wasting in advertising agencies for the past few years—decided to found a mock-trend forecasting company called K-Hole. Think of it as a conceptual art project masquerading as a marketing firm. The idea was simple: use the model they had been exposed to over and over again at work—in smugly self-serious presentations by pseudo-scientific advertising executives—as a medium for exploring social theoretical ideas based on the world around them. That, after all, is what artists do: interpret the world through a medium.
K-Hole’s first trend report was called “Youth Mode: A Report on Trends,” and they posted it to their newborn website, khole.net in October of that year. One section of the document was labeled “Normcore.” The five had no idea that the title, invented in seemingly snarky haste, would stick the way it did, or for that matter, be so horribly misused.
“Individuality was once the path to personal freedom,” the document concluded, assuming a tone more Agamben than Edelkoort, “a way to lead life on your own terms. But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated.” So far, so good. K-Hole was advancing the very same sort of grim, reactionary reading of neoliberal agency common to sociology and anthropology. But then they did something social scientists seldom do; they presented a possible way out. “Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity,” they wrote. “It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging. Normcore is a path to a more peaceful life.”
Normcore, the fashion of anti-fashion, the art of blending in. Hardt and Negri’s multitude comes immediately to mind, as does Agamben’s whatever being, a new, more ecumenical figure of political action to replace the divisive, class-based one characteristic of an older brand of Marxism. It is an appealing concept, an identity outside of identity politics, and it’s no wonder the idea took off.
Some five months after K-Hole had posted and almost forgotten about their report, Fiona Duncan, a New York journalist, got into a casual conversation with one of K-Hole’s member’s roommates. Normcore was mentioned. Soon, Duncan had published an article in New York Magazine’s The Cut arguing that normcore, the fad of “art kids” dressing like “middle-aged, middle-American tourists,” was taking New York by storm. Mall clothes were all the rage, white athletic socks being pulled from that box of clothes stored under the bed since moving to Manhattan. Ugly leather baseball hats suddenly became a thing among the bearded bohemian set. Never mind that Duncan was confusing “normcore,” the art of dressing to fit in to a particular social context, with “acting basic,” another K-Hole concept meaning to dress in a uniform of casual non-descriptness. The point was, normcore had moved from art concept to “real life.” It had taken on legs. And the fashion press pounced, some attacking the very idea of normcore as antithetical to fashion, others treating it like a new religion. Within a few weeks, everyone from The New York Times to Vice was weighing in on normcore, and by the end of 2014, “normcore” was the most googled fashion term of the year. Not that anyone ever referred to themselves as “normcore,” or cited these articles as sources of inspiration. No one ever calls themselves “hipster” either. And yet both “hipster” and “normcore” are now observable in practice in the very same urban enclaves most likely to deride the terms.
There is a chicken and the egg dynamic at work here. Which came first? Normcore or its description in the fashion press?
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter whether normcore was a phenomenon first observed out there in the “real world” or an idealized personal state, invented by former art students and promoted by a trendy-hungry fashion press. In either case, the concept, once established, had observable real world consequences. Designers created looks around normcore. Buyers stocked their stores based on its perceived relevance. Endless online conversations spurred real-life emulations. If normcore wasn’t happening on the streets of your hometown in October of 2013, by October of 2014 it was. And by the early days of 2015, it was already beginning to lose its grip, supplanted in short order by a whole range of equally spurious trends, including “health goth,” “cutester,” "lumbersexual," and sportscore. Normcore, it seems, was not the end of fashion as we know it after all. It was not its antithesis, but merely another meaningless moment in fashion’s ceaseless trend cycle. Too bad. I liked the idea. It had much more radical potential than this whole sportswear as menswear thing.
In a recent Vice UK article, writer Hannah Ewens belittles “normcore,” “cutester,” and “health goth” as three equally vacuous products of media hyperbole, whose existence says less about “the kids these days” than the story-hungry journalists reporting on them. “In truth, none of these things are really subcultures,” she writes. “They're trends, ways to dress; you know that because you're not an idiot. As such, though you could probably find people who look health goth, normcore, and cutester in any major city, there doesn't seem to be any kind of coherent lifestyle behind the clothes. Where, for example, is the number one normcore bar in London? How does a health goth pay the rent? Where do cutesters go to find sex? Where's the sense of tribalism that led to the M25 raves and Mods getting their heads kicked in on Brighton beach?”
Ewens juxtaposes the hype surrounding normcore and its supposed successors with the organic “subcultures” of street style’s past. What she doesn’t mention is that both ravers and mods were just as blown out of proportion by the media buzz of their time as any of these more current youth trends. Raves were a “moral panic” of the early ‘90s, a symptom of drug-fueled depravity; mods were evidence of a new youth menace that dominated the headlines of the early ‘60s, their conceptual counterpart, and frequent sparring partner, the “rockers” sometimes sharing article space with them. Even punk, the post-facto media darling of the authenticity-seeking subcultural observers of today, came largely prefabricated, a joint product of Vivienne Westwood’s avant garde fashion sensibility and Malcolm McLaren’s Situationist-meets-capitalist ideology. There is no such thing as a genuine youth subculture, existing beyond the mediation of journalistic discourse. Subcultures develop in conversation with media. They don’t spring fully formed from the sidewalks of a working-class slum.
So perhaps it’s time to put to rest the tired debate about whether normcore—or cutester, or health goth, or even hipster—were an actual thing, apart from the trend reporting that defined them for everyone else. Trend reporting is as productive as it is predictive. It conjures into being through the very act of inscription. Once significant reporting has happened on a subject, it is a thing by the very fact of its being discussed.
What was new about normcore, then, was not its questionable real world existence. That is true of all trends today. There are so many simultaneous and overlapping sartorial phenomena going on at any given time that any act of isolating one for closer scrutiny constructs artificial boundaries around it, starves it of its lived vitality, and dooms it to a rapid demise. What was new about normcore was the way it seemed to gleefully embrace its “emperor has no clothes” status. Reporting on normcore couldn’t help but frolic a little in its own contrivance and cynicism. You see, unlike with punk, mod, or even hipster or health goth, no two people are likely to agree on who qualifies as “normcore” in the first place. You can never conclusively determine whether a look that you are seeing before you is in fact normcore, or simply “normal.” If I were prone to paranoia, I might suggest that trend forecasters had promoted normcore so passionately to their clients and readers precisely for this reason. Their clients, after all, would never know for certain that they were wrong. Normcore, in hindsight, reads almost as an advertisement for the uncertainty in which the trend forecasting industry trades. The emperor has no clothes, but we are going to keep on pretending he does just the same, until we all agree that nudity too is a kind of adornment.