New York Magazine ran a trend piece Wednesday about “normcore,” a supposedly anti-fashion fashion trend supposedly emerging among beautiful New York young people. The aesthetic can be summed up by Steve Jobs turtlenecks, garish-white Jerry Seinfeld sneakers, and your dad’s sky-blue weekend jeans.
Here’s writer Fiona Duncan’s explanation:
Jeremy Lewis, the founder/editor of Garmento and a freelance stylist and fashion writer, calls normcore “one facet of a growing anti-fashion sentiment.” His personal style is (in the words of Andre Walker, a designer Lewis featured in the magazine’s last issue) “exhaustingly plain”—this winter, that’s meant a North Face fleece, khakis, and New Balances. Lewis says his “look of nothing” is about absolving oneself from fashion, “lest it mark you as a mindless sheep.”
Lewis elaborates further:
“It’s a very flat look, conspicuously unpretentious, maybe even endearingly awkward. It’s a lot of cliché style taboos, but it’s not the irony I love, it’s rather practical and no-nonsense, which to me, right now, seems sexy. I like the idea that one doesn’t need their clothes to make a statement.”
My first impression: This is a hoax, like that time in the ’90s when a 25-year-old Sub Pop employee slipped a whole glossary of fake grunge slang into the New York Times. Are we seriously supposed to believe that Brooklyn fashion mavens are swingin’ on the flippity flop while dressed like University of South Carolina frat bros? Gothamist responded with a takedown of NY Mag‘s normcore piece later the same day: “In other words, it’s a premeditated search for things to wear that make you look naturally like other people. In other other words, clothes.”
It’s also worth noting that normcore comes from a place of privilege, like celebrities donning hoodies to dodge paparazzi at the grocery store. Most of the people sporting this “look” aren’t doing so intentionally; they’re just wearing what they can afford.
But before you throw this one on the Hipster Thinkpiece compost heap, try thinking of normcore as a litmus test. Let’s say you see an otherwise fashion-forward college student out on the sidewalk sporting an off-brand baseball cap and hammer-loop jorts with cargo pockets. Do you:
a. Assume it’s laundry day and let her off the hook?
b. Write her off as just another thrift store pillager using irony as a crutch?
c. Give her the nod for bucking whatever trend is trending?
If you chose a., good for you. Unlike most Millennial-trend-piece writers, you’re giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe you just like hammer-loops. There is nothing wrong with that.
If you chose b., consider that irony isn’t always a crutch, and neither is it mutually exclusive from sincerity. Irony is a means of expression; sincerity is a way of life. This, in a nutshell, is the argument of the New Sincerity. I would argue that it’s possible to dress cheekily and have sincere motives at the same time: to wear a bucket hat both as a joke and to keep the sun off your neck; to wear track pants both as an anti-fashion statement and because they are comfortable; to sport a WWJD bracelet, fully aware of its outmoded ’90s cultural cachet but also earnestly trying to figure out What Jesus Would Do.
I came close to option c. recently while working on an assignment for my newspaper’s music section. A coworker was shooting a video of an up-and-coming indie rock act from my town called Brave Baby, and I was there to interview the band and serve as the cameraman’s assistant.
The five guys in Brave Baby are inarguably cooler and more fashionable than I aspire to be. And for some reason, that day, the lead singer was dressed like a New York stockbroker trying to unwind, circa 1994: white tennis shoes, uniformly faded taper-leg jeans, tucked-in henley shirt, big ol’ wire-rimmed glasses.
In his lyrics and music, this man is sincere. His songs express real yearning, real love, real disappointment. His group is not some nihilist punk band. But in interviews, he can come off as standoffish and sarcastic. Once, when I asked him about the inspiration for one of his more tender songs, he dismissed the whole thing as “emo bullshit.”
He was equally dismissive of the band’s name: “It’s a hilarious band name. It’s a terrible band name … Once you are capable of deleting any connotation that listeners have with what the name means and making it more about the band, then it can be cool.”
I never asked him about his outfit that day. Fashion is not one of my specialties, and whatever look he was pulling off was probably over my head. That, or he was dressing normcore (again, assuming normcore isn’t a hoax perpetrated by NY Mag).
Personally, I’m not style-conscious enough to call my own wardrobe normcore. The Gap dress shirts and reasonable slim khakis I wear to work are just — how do you say — normal. But I think I understand the ethos of the thing.
The only illuminating example I can think of from my own life is my choice in hats. There was a time in college when I wore my dad’s old tweed driver cap, but I put it back in the closet after everyone kept asking me if I’d seen Newsies. As a worker in the newspaper industry, it struck me as too literal of a fashion choice.
Hats, I discovered, are tricky. A rakish fedora was out of the question; it’s not even worth trying unless you look like Humphrey Bogart in a trenchcoat. Porkpie? Too chic for me. Trilby? Maybe, if I had more confidence.
Picking a hat was too stressful, so on a vacation in Wilmington, N.C., I bought a plain tan-and-green embroidered baseball cap from a petting zoo gift shop. It fits. It is ugly. It keeps the sun out of my eyes. And I wear it all the time now.
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