America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
—Warren G. Harding, “A Return to Normalcy,” May 14, 1920
Not long ago, a curious fashion trend swept through New York City’s hipster preserves, from Bushwick to the Lower East Side. Once, well-heeled twentysomethings had roamed these streets in plaid button-downs and floral playsuits. Now, the reign of the aspiring lumberjacks and their mawkish mates was coming to an end. Windbreakers, baseball caps, and polar fleece appeared among the flannel. Cargo shorts and khakis were verboten no longer. Denim went from dark-rinse to light. Sandals were worn, and sometimes with socks. It was a blast of carefully modulated blandness—one that delighted some fashion types, appalled others, and ignited the critical passions of lifestyle journalists everywhere.
They called it Normcore. Across our Fashion Nation, style sections turned out lengthy pieces exploring this exotic lurch into the quotidian, and trend watchers plumbed every possible meaning in the cool kids’ new fondness for dressing like middle-aged suburbanites. Were hipsters sacrificing their coolness in a brave act of self-renunciation? Was this an object lesson in the futility of ritually chasing down, and then repudiating, the coolness of the passing moment? Or were middle-aged dorks themselves mysteriously cool all of a sudden? Was Normcore just an elaborate prank designed to prove that style writers can be fooled into believing almost anything is trendy?
By March 2014, Vogue had declared Normcore totally over, but even that lofty fiat couldn’t put a stop to it. Gap adopted the slogan “dress normal” for its fall ad campaign, and the donnish Oxford English Dictionary nominated “normcore” for 2014’s word of the year. A full twelve months after Vogue tried to extinguish it, Normcore continues to convulse opinion, a half-life long enough (in fashion-time, anyway) to place it among the decade’s most enduring trends.
More than that, elaborate prank or no, Normcore is a remarkably efficient summary of hipster posturing at its most baroque. Never has a trend so perfectly crystallized the endless, empty layers of fashion-based rebellion. And never has a trend shown itself to be so openly contemptuous of the working class. Like many a fad before it, Normcore thrives on appropriation. But where privileged hipsters once looked to underground subcultures—bikers, punks, Teddy Boys—as they pursued their downwardly mobile personal liberation, they now latch onto the faceless working majority: the Walmart shoppers, the suburban moms and dads.
Even if it began as something of a self-referential fashion joke, the media’s infatuation with all things Normcore says a lot. Not least, it highlights our abiding social need for a sanitized counterculture, for a youthful rebellion that can be readily dismissed, for the comfort of neoliberal melancholy, for what Warren G. Harding—the unheralded John the Baptist of the Normcore Gospel—famously called “a return to normalcy.”
The Revolt of the Mass Indie Überelite
The adventure began in 2013, and picked up steam early last year with Fiona Duncan’s “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion,” a blowout exploration of the anti-individualist Normcore creed for New York magazine. Duncan remembered feeling the first tremors of the revolution:
Sometime last summer 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.”
Brad, however eloquent and charming, did not coin the term himself. He got it from K-HOLE, a group of trend forecasters. To judge by K-HOLE’s name alone—a slang term for the woozy aftereffects of the animal tranquilizer and recreational drug ketamine—the group was more than happy to claim Normcore as its own licensed playground. As company principals patiently explained to the New York Times, their appropriation of the name of a toxic drug hangover was itself a sly commentary on the cultural logic of the corporate world’s frenetic cooptation of young people’s edgy habits. At a London art gallery in October 2013, in a paper titled “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom,” team K-HOLE proposed the Twitter hashtag #Normcore as a rejoinder to such cooptation:
If the rule is Think Different, being seen as normal is the scariest thing. (It means being returned to your boring suburban roots, being turned back into a pumpkin, exposed as unexceptional.) Which paradoxically makes normalcy ripe for the Mass Indie überelites to adopt as their own, confirming their status by showing how disposable the trappings of uniqueness are.
Jargon aside, the report had a point: lately “Mass Indie überelites”—a group more commonly known as hipsters—have been finding it increasingly difficult to express their individuality, the very thing that confers hipster cred.
Part of the problem derives from the hipster’s ubiquity. For the past several years, hipsterism has been an idée fixe in the popular press—coy cultural shorthand in the overlapping worlds of fashion, music, art, and literature for a kind of rebellion that doesn’t quite come off on its own steam. Forward-thinking middle-class youngsters used to strike fear in the hearts of the squares by flouting social norms—at least nominally, until they grew up and settled into their own appointed professional, middle-class destinies. Now, however, the hipster is a benign and well-worn figure of fun: a lumpenbourgeois urbanite perpetually in search of ways to display her difference from the masses.
That is not to say that the hipsters of yore made any great strides in the realm of social change. The punks of the seventies and eighties, together with their nineties-era grunge and indie-rocker descendants, idealized the notion of authenticity. This arch-individualist outlook translated into an ethos of responsible small-business ownership, an interest in the arcana of the letter-press aesthetic, and little else. While independent record labels and artisans built sustainable distribution networks, they and their clientele were busy ferreting out poseurs with the same prosecutorial vigor with which McCarthyites once sought Communists.
Still, it might be protested that Tailgunner Joe and his followers at least advanced a successful agenda. Punk fashion theorists, by contrast, only paved the way for newer and bigger revolutions in trend marketing. Starting in the nineties, the media and advertising worlds latched onto signifiers of youthful rebellion as their own preferred brands, telling buying publics, in essence, that their individuality was just one franchised rebellious gesture away. Meanwhile, a new body of lax global trade regulations helped to accelerate the round-robin logic of trend endorsement and repudiation. All these converging forces meant that outward, commoditized displays of insurrection—piercings, meticulously anachronistic attire, felted owls—became unreliable ways of judging whether or not the person in front of you was down. And in equally rapid order, the Internet came along to propel tongue-in-cheek micro-trends like healthgoth and seapunk far enough into the mediasphere to reach even oldsters like me.
The great fashion speed-up has spurred an epidemic of hipster exhaustion. Now that Rihanna has dyed her hair gray and youth trends have cycled through the fashion of every decade at least twice,[*] where can an ironic counter-gesture take hold?
This is where Normcore comes in. For all its precious, self-conscious packaging as the mother of all counter-trends, Normcore possesses a certain irony-resistant purity. It’s a purely formalist dissident pose with nothing at stake but the rules of fashion itself.
Consider the most recognizable hallmark of Normcore attire: mom jeans. Until Normcore’s advent, “mom jeans” was a first-order fashion epithet. It effectively described and dismissed the bad trouser choices of an entire generation of unsexy and desexualized mothers. In 2011, Susan Orlean captured the sins of the mom jean in a dead-on clinical description in The New Yorker: “medium wash denim, buttoned over the slightly-out-of-shape belly, tasteful stitching, legs neither wide enough to be subversive nor tight enough to be sexy.”
Today, mom jeans are a coveted fashion item. ASOS, a global, London-based fast-fashion distributor that sells the trendiest clothes and accessories at a range of price points, presently offers seventy-five varieties. Although each pair has slightly different variations—strategically placed rips, acid wash, pleats—all share a high waist, an ill-fitting crotch, and back pockets stitched high enough to elongate and flatten the wearer’s ass. The overall effect is to make the wearer look twenty-five years out of date—the early nineties being the last time that loose-fitting, relaxed-leg, tastefully stitched jeans were remotely on-trend.
But woe betide any actual mother, her lower abdomen distended in pregnancy’s aftermath, who tries to pull off mom jeans. On all but the sveltest frames, they look frumpy, unflattering, and hopelessly out of touch. It takes a lithe physique and other signifiers of privilege to put quotation marks around apparel that, under most circumstances, reads as clueless or careless. Mom jeans are designed for comfort and concealment, while “mom jeans” mock the need to cover up the flaws of a non-catwalk-ready body by emphasizing their absence, with the added bonus of mocking other flawless girls who’ve fallen for the far more pedestrian charms of skin-tight low-riders.
Lauren Sherman, writing in Elle, neatly summarized the dilemma of the Normcore enthusiast. The Normcore movement, she argued, will never actually be a phenomenon
because most women do not want to look “normal.” They want to look hip or chic—ideally both. And for most people, normcore isn’t going to help them achieve those two descriptors. “A beautiful stylist in mom jeans and sneakers does not look the same as a mom in the Midwest,” my editor said. Clearly, there’s a difference between expertly styled, proportion-conscious fashion normcore and legitimate strip mall-and-minivan normcore.
While Sherman underestimated the allure of mom jeans among the fashion forward, she and her editor perfectly elicited the contempt hidden beneath the pleats.
Then again, so did a lot of other people. In a discussion of Normcore on Reddit’s fashion advice board, the top-rated comment said as much:
If I dress #normcore in an unfashionable, tiny, rural, midwestern town, does it still count? Or am I an asshole for dressing like the People of Walmart around me? Am I getting my fashion kicks at their expense and cruelly poking fun at their lack of disposable income for trendy fashion? . . . If I dress “normcore” at the county fair and there’s no one cool enough to get the message I’m sending with my fashion choices, am I still dressing normcore?
Good questions all—but here again, the hipster’s rebellion is so contorted that its challenge to the herdlike cultural mainstream seems poised for total absorption by said mainstream. While it’s hard to interpret the appeal of the nü mom jean as anything other than a fairly aggressive mode of derision, recent turns in the item’s history complicate that meaning. Beyond the anonymous hordes of harried mothers donning shapeless dungarees to run to Target, the mom jean has other, far more visible followers. During the last election cycle, Mitt Romney’s proclivity for mom jeans was so pronounced that it became a full-fledged Internet meme and the subject of its own Tumblr. In March 2014, The Atlantic Wire published a photo retrospective of President Obama donning mom jeans at every available opportunity.
Woe betide any actual mother, her lower abdomen distended in pregnancy’s aftermath, who tries to pull off mom jeans.
“Jeans are the most democratic of pants,” said The Atlantic Wire while tearing Obama’s fashion choices to shreds. Indeed, when consummate populist Glenn Beck decided to start 1791, a retail label whose name kipes the year of the Bill of Rights’ signing, he turned to denim: selvage denim, to be precise, retailing for $190 a pair. The 1791 website launched three years ago with pinup pictures of manly men in expensive jeans toiling at blue-collar labor, but its current version features a medium-build, bearded hipster modeling slouchy jeans and waxed hunting jackets. The spirit of the original American Revolution, like that of all the later and smaller-bore revolutions in American culture, has thus succumbed to the inexorable entitled prerogatives of the leisure class.
When the country’s most powerful men endeavor to ape ordinary human beings, denim seems requisite, a tactic as proven and as predictable as inserting “folks” into a stump speech. As camouflage goes, mom jeans seem more effective than pricey selvage: mom jeans ingeniously distract attention from their mediagenic wearer’s ability to buy whatever the hell he wants. The sophisticated fashion gamine and the presidential hopeful would seem to have entirely different aims, but when they embrace Normcore’s signature item, it confers on them the same strategic cultural advantage.
This advantage goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of mom jeans in yet another unlikely and high-profile fan base: billionaire tech CEOs. Steve Jobs rarely made public appearances without them and, with an insouciant flourish, would add a black turtleneck and a pair of sneakers to round out the look. Mark Zuckerberg, too, has made a habit of dressing in bad denim, most famously when meeting with fellow mom-jean enthusiast Obama. That meeting, though, pointed up one important difference: instead of pandering to Middle America, the mom-jean-wearing tech CEO flaunts his indifference to it.
Hipsters could be aspirationally mimicking Zuckerberg’s fuck-it attire, or they could be struggling to scale the forbidding heights of hipster resistance as charted on Reddit’s fashion board—who knows, least of all themselves? To ironize all is, at last, to forgive all.
Food for Thought
Things get even more complicated when you consider the Middle American booboisie on whom Normcore sets its sights. Even as Normcore jeers at neutral, fashion-backward attire, it also manages to exalt the clueless exurbanite by turning her into a fetish object: the Emma Bovary of the strip mall. It’s not clear just how and why hipsters came to fixate on the People of Walmart, but it’s not a passing fancy; one after another, hipsters are elevating dreary things to the height of fashion.
Think of the rise of kale. The once-humble vegetable has ascended to such dizzying heights that Beyoncé wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with “KALE” in one of her recent videos.
See also pizza, a closer edible analogue to Normcore. A friend with ties to the advertising industry informed me of pizza’s edginess sometime last year, directing me to a Tumblr called Slice Guyz that collects pictures of pizza-themed graffiti and the like. Former child star and current hipster Macaulay Culkin started a joke band called the Pizza Underground; it performs selections from the Velvet Underground catalogue repurposed with pizza-themed lyrics. In September, New York magazine—the same oracle that announced the rise of Normcore—anointed pizza as the “chicest new trend.” As incontrovertible evidence that the trend was indeed taking hold, the magazine’s fashion brain trust commissioned layouts of Katy Perry and Beyoncé (now the avatar of food-themed chicness, it would seem) in pizza-print outfits.
To take something recognizably bad, whether pizza or bulky fleece sweatshirts, and try to pass it off as avant-garde self-expression is an incredibly defeatist gesture, one both aware of and happy with its futility. Ceci n’est pas intéressant.
Still, pizza, like denim, is accessible to all Americans and crafted with wildly different levels of competence, self-awareness, and artisanal intent. Papa John’s or Little Caesars may deliver glorified tomato-paste-on-cardboard alongside tubs of dipping butter to a nation of indifferent proles. But if you ask New York’s infinitely more with-it pizza correspondents, they’ll tell you, with numbing precision, that pizza can be “toppings-forward” and “avant-garde.” This range makes pizza the perfect hipster quarry: sometimes mundane, sometimes aspirational, and above all, exotic.
There is another futile, melancholy sentiment at the heart of Normcore: nostalgia for childhood. Pizza, for example, is a child’s food. Meanwhile, in the fashion realm, today’s twentysomethings don the clothes they grew up with in the early nineties, which was the heyday of ill-fitting denim and neutral color palettes. The Midwestern mothers of some of these hipsters—surely they’re not all from New York—likely wore mom jeans themselves, and may wear them still. In this sense, pizza and Normcore play out an essentially conservative outlook: a longing for a prelapsarian time before the shame and self-awareness of city living deprived its acolytes of the simple comfort of Domino’s delivery and loose pants.
Before you can say “plain Hanes tee,” this longing can shade again into contempt. When urban hipsters fetishize the déclassé and the mundane, they rely on their understanding of middle America as a colony, one filled with happy proles to be mined for fashion inspiration. This is as true for hipsters as it is for Glenn Beck, whose bone-deep cynicism about the heartland is simply an amplified version of the same infatuated disdain cultivated by a deliberately dowdy Brooklynite. How else can one account for the steady migration of Normcore into the very corporate world that calls the shots on what we buy and how—a world in which web designers, programmers, stylists, advertising executives, and other masters of the knowledge economy now dress up like call-center drones headed to the Dollar Store?
After the streets of New York, the next stop for Normcore was the dining halls of wealthy college campuses. In the November issue of the Old Gold and Black, Wake Forest University’s student newspaper, an undergrad noted with evident satisfaction that “Wake Forest is currently at peak normcore.” A Wake Forest campus fashion Tumblr called Forest Folk, she says, is filled with “variation[s] on the normcore theme (denim jackets, cable-knit sweaters, thick-rimmed glasses) juxtaposed against the site’s masthead, which pithily declares: ‘Dare to be different.’” It’s perhaps no coincidence that Wake Forest ranks near the bottom of economically diverse top colleges and specializes in training students for well-paid careers in medicine and law.
On the Left Coast, Normcore arrived at UC-Berkeley. In the Daily Californian, one software-engineer-in-the-making spelled out his strategic presentation of the self in terms that would bring a knowing smile to Richard Florida’s lips:
Sean Soave, a junior computer science major, is quick to emphasize normcore’s hidden-in-plain-sight sensibility. “It’s like . . . being undercover,” Soave explains. “You’re putting your outfit together, and you’re going for the aesthetic of a normal person, but you aren’t them. It’s stealth mall chic. It’s ironic conformity.”
Ironic conformity: Behold the clarion call of a new generation of programmers, doctors, and lawyers utterly assured of their own individualism—and just as certain that the playful derision they heap on normal working slobs exempts them from the petty indignities of the working life. Soon, they will reap the benefits of their semi-ironic STEM degrees, matriculating further into actual jobs in management. Then it will be abundantly clear that the social privilege they exert over the 68 percent of adult Americans who haven’t finished college isn’t quite the fucking joke that our fashion scribes take it to be. Sit tight, Normcore kids. The mall and everything in it will soon be yours.
The New Normal
In 1920, Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding staked his campaign on the less-than-stirring call for a return to normalcy, based on the notion that America, fresh out of World War I, was overwhelmed by its recent intervention in European affairs and longed to embrace a quiet nationalism. The only real departure from the middle-American norm Harding proposed was the word “normalcy” itself, which was a clumsy bastardization of “normality.” Like many of his modern successors, Harding fractured the common tongue by executive fiat.
While Normcore broke these last few years, the Obama administration backed Syrian rebels in an attempt to defeat ISIS and Assad. In Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing 1,100 sweatshop workers making clothes for such Normcore name brands as JCPenney. In the middle-American town of Ferguson, Missouri, white people in bad jeans ran for the hills as protesters denounced a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed a black teenage boy. Bill Cosby, the poster boy for eighties Normcore, came under fire from more than two dozen accusers on disturbing charges of rape and sexual assault. Like Harding’s bland postwar call to national recumbency, Normcore’s hold on the culture could well signal a desperate, uncynical wish for a sense of isolated tranquility. It seeks to reinscribe, through countless layers of adroitly theorized irony, old-fashioned American values unperturbed by police brutality and sexual assault. And it wants, finally, to buttress a social order in which the wealthy can flaunt their superiority without fear of reproach.
[*] In the eighties, it was the fifties. In the nineties, it was the seventies. In the aughts, it was the fifties and the eighties again, and now everybody either dresses like it’s the early nineties or looks like a damn lumberjack.