I was in the first or second grade when the fashion world cracked open for the first time. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was seated across from my dad on a red pleather booth at a Leo’s Coney Island.
“Daddy, look.” I said, pointing to a man who had just walked through the door. He was dressed in black from head to toe, save a green Mohawk. There were silver chains dripping from his belt loops and giant holes in his ears.
“Amanda, don’t point,” my dad said, his voice lowered. “He dresses like that to make a statement.”
Flash forward to fifteen years later. The Leo’s Coney Island looks like a café in Soho, and the style statement warrants no pointed fingers from curious youngsters like myself. In fact, the statement-makers remain largely undetected, unnoticed and under the radar. But that’s part of the point.
They’re “normcore,” a term that has been increasingly used to describe a trend, a style, a statement, a movement and a joke, if you want it to be. It is generally applied to a plain Jane type of fashion characterized by solid tees, generic sneakers, baseball hats and any other anti-attention grabbing article of clothing.
The word itself was first used by a New York-based trend forecasting company called K-Hole. Their most recent online publication, “Youth Mode: A Report On Freedom” reads: “Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness.” The definition does not specifically apply to fashion, but rather to a way of life. In fact, when the fashion world began to apply the term to the fashion aesthetic, the meaning began to evolve.
According to K-Hole, normcore is meant to connect; it “opts in to sameness.” In the fashion world, this means that instead of choosing to stand out, the fashionista very pointedly blends in. Normcore has a sense of humility; New York Magazine’s “The Cut” calls normcore “Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in Seven Billion,” which is a sentimental embrace of one’s role as an individual within a greater whole.
From this perspective, normcore seems to blur the lines of class distinction as they are communicated through clothing. The normcore pieces are cheap, accessible and available to the masses, making normcore fashionistas out of anyone who wants to claim the title. Looking cheap redefines itself as an insult no more. Owning and flaunting expensive things loses its edge. The hierarchy of goods crumbles.
The New York Times offers one definition of normcore as an “embrace of bland, suburban anti-fashion attire.” The definition resonates with those who believe in the egalitarian point of entry into this type of fashion. But when considering the elitist viewpoint, I question if the “bland” is really embraced or if it is merely satirized—perhaps donning the “anti-fashion attire” is only pulled off by someone for whom those anti-fashion staples do not represent their own norm. Perhaps the clothing can only be considered normcore when it is worn ironically. Perhaps the class lines are not blurred after all. Perhaps they’re only reinforced by a mentality that sees normcore fashion as an acceptable opportunity to dress like the “other,” but better.
Reflecting upon my experience with the mohawk-styled man in Coney Island, it appears that a large part of the transmitted statement lies in the mind of the beholder. Back then, I knew little to nothing about the punk movement and its meaning. Despite our differences, I connected with that man because I admired his intention to make a statement through self-expression and equally revered the sense of individuality he established as one of seven billion.
Normcore subscribers get flack for appearing to lose that sense of admired individuality when they relinquish their point of distinction. I’ll defend them on the authority that I once worked a fashion internship where an editor looked at a spread of plain white crew-neck tees of all different brands and separated them into two piles: one pile of ugly and unusable tees and one pile of perfect tees. Think cerulean belt scene from The Devil Wears Prada. If two practically identical t-shirts are considered unquestionably different, I think the individuality of the normcore dresser is safe.
The subtitle of The New York Times article “The New Normal” reads, “Normcore: Fashion Movement or Massive In-Joke?” When observed through the decades, the question makes sense. Unpacking this “new” trend that now glorifies the once-reviled mom-jeans and popularizes bargain-shopper shirts that come three-to-a-pack at Walmart warrants the question: what’s so new about it?
Looking at normcore for its newness is only worthwhile when we consider that it’s on the rise here and now. Otherwise, it is a subtle but meaningful celebration of the old. Those mom-jeans and Hanes tees are finally getting due time in the style spotlight. There’s a fashion coup d’etat happening right under our noses. The ever-present but under-appreciated wardrobe pieces are taking over the fashion space and kicking gone-in-a-flash trends to the curb on the grounds of proven longevity. So long live normcore… though I suppose it already has.