the case against normcore

Fashion’s newest movement wants you to look normal in a hardcore way. But under normcore circumstances, the world is a bleak place. Don’t do it!

by Anders Christian Madsen
10 June 2014, 12:05pm

When we decided to tackle Normcore with opposing opinion pieces, taking the anti stance seemed only appropriate to me. Nothing could be more anti than a phenomenon that pretty much renounces self-expression, so in these times of Normcore, what could reflect the trend better than being anti the trend itself? There's a certain irony in the fact that something which is essentially meant as anti-fashion ends up being the trend of the season. And the irony doesn't stop there. In search of the earliest definition of the term I came across a clarification from the trend-forecasting agency K-Hole, who coined the term, setting the record straight. "Normcore means you pursue every activity like you're a fanatic of the form," they wrote. "It doesn't really make sense to identify Normcore as a fashion trend, the point of Normcore is that you could dress like a NASCAR mascot for a big race and then switch to raver wear for a long druggy night at the club. It's about infinitely flexible, sunny appropriation." Like they tell you when you sign up for a job in retail, Normcore is a lifestyle, not a phase. And apparently it comes with a manual, too. It's hard work being normal.

As things go, people couldn't care less what the real definition of a word is - just ask "irony", "literally" and "enormity" - and over the course of a few months, Normcore has come to describe the current trend for dressing "normal" and doing "normal" things in a particularly dedicated way, rather than its intended use. Normcore is a single-coloured T-shirt, a plain pair of jeans and an everyday trainer, all unbranded and calmly monotone. It's an unexceptional haircut, an asexual dress and a nondescript suit, anti-styled and devoid of personality. It was also the word popularly employed by the press throughout the autumn/winter 14 shows, where designers engaged in displays of Normcore such as Chanel's everyday supermarket set and Louis Vuitton's beige travel lounge. And just so I don't get any hipster legal action from diehard normcorists, please let the record show that this is the definition of Normcore to which I'll refer in my following take-down of the phenomenon on the whole. Because: why would anyone in their right mind want to look normal, or worse, be normal?

I grew up in Denmark, also known as Minimalism Central. It's the country that brought you organically sculpted Arne Jacobsen furniture, optical white fashion stores with virtually nothing in them, and trains where a passive aggressive speaker says, "On time," whenever they call at a station. Everything in Denmark is clean and orderly, no one steps out of line, and everyone pretty much looks and acts the same. I'm sure it was growing up in a culture like that which made me swear to never join the ranks of normalcy. If anything serves as a stop sign for the mentality Normcore inevitably promotes, it's these kinds of societies: bubbles in which deviation is more or less frowned upon. So when I was first confronted with Normcore and my fellow Londoners' instant infatuation with it, I couldn't help but find the idea somewhat spoiled. Here is an urban culture, which has given its residents infinite space and encouragement to express themselves - you can be a punker, a raver, or dress up like a giant chicken if you want - and they embrace bland anonymity like it's the second coming.

I understand it. If you've spent your entire life surrounded by colour, grey must have a peaceful appeal about it. It's nearly ten years ago now since the fashion club scene was flooded with the most extreme sense of expression I'd ever experienced in my life. Nu Rave was taking over East London, and everywhere you looked were a gaudy drag queen, a girl with a phone on her head or a guy dressed as a disco ball. When it was over, around late 2007, it was really over. People were so fed up with colour, gimmicks and glitter; all they wanted was a night-in and some rigid, black-and-white tailoring to go with it. As infectious as Nu Rave had been when it first arrived, as repulsive did it become towards the end. So passé did this club kid movement feel that people effectively started practising disassociation by blandness, and since the fun and flamboyance of Nu Rave equalled uncool, what could be cooler than being boring? The bigger the wave, the greater its wake, and when the post-fabulous era of chic boredom set in, it was in it for the long run, fuelled by our newfound need for seriousness caused by the recession. So in essence, I blame Nu Rave for Normcore.

"Fashion is about expression. Many different and contrasting styles make the street come to life, and this is what makes the world visually interesting. I have a hard time detecting the interesting element in Normcore. It can be as intellectually fascinating as it wants, but if it's not eye-catching what exactly is its contribution to fashion and to the world?"

Back in the mid-late 00s, I experienced fashion's state of mind as a kind of cold turkey, albeit without the shaking and the sweating. The willingness for the sober created a much-needed platform for designers like Richard Nicoll and Alexander Wang, who founded their labels in 2006 and 2007 respectively, and Raf Simons, after his successful takeover at Jil Sander in 2005. "'Perfect boring' and 'special normal' are terms I came up with to explain my designs when I was working on my main collection," Nicoll once said, practically carving out K-Hole's coining of Normcore way ahead of its time. Back then, we craved not the normal, but the boring: the urban solitude and personal space that dressing down creates. What these designers did was a natural step in the evolution of fashion. As street style stars took over from club kids and the fashion show entrance became the new dance floor, our views on seeking attention seemed to change. While the craving to get noticed was no doubt the same, it was suddenly all about looking as if you didn't really care, and hadn't really made an effort anyway. These days it's not cool to be a street style victim. If you want to get real street cred, "effortless" and "blasé" are your go-to words.

Our fear of being those kids in fancy dress, who eagerly follow the photographer around the party all night, has created a set of unwritten rules on how to be cool, which are so fascist and restrictive they're constantly refuelling their own power tank. It must be exhausting to be an aspiring street style star right now, having to put so much energy into dressing interestingly in an under-the-top way so photographers and your peers will think you're just naturally Normcore. But unless your initial reaction to the word Normcore is "huh?" there is no such thing. All around the fashion publishing sphere, on printed pages and digital sites, people are currently letting out sighs of relief that Normcore has "finally arrived", exclamation points in tow. But if they're really so grateful that at last they can wear the plain grey jumper and straight-cut jean to work they always dreamed of wearing, why exactly is it that they didn't just wear it before? I mean, if they have only been dressing up until now because they were agonisingly following various fads, life must have been tough.

It's not like the chance to dress Normcore hasn't been an option both socially and commercially since the 60s. If you were so hell-bent on being fashionably neutral, what were you doing collecting Givenchy Rottweiler jumpers and stripy Prada platform brogues for the past couple of years when you could have been going all out at Margaret Howell? The thing is, if you're truly Normcore, you've been dressing like it your entire life. If you opened your wardrobe pre-2014 and there were seven things in it and you wore them all the day before and the day before that, you're pretty true Normcore. If you opened your wardrobe pre-2014 and there were 70 things in it because you've got 10 of each garment, it's the case even more so! If you take a BuzzFeed quiz to find out which celebrity you are and you're either Will Ferrell, Ellen Page, or anyone from the cast of Seinfeld, then you are truly Normcore. But if none of the above applies and you're still wearing a bleakly coloured Members Only jacket, you're just a bit trendy.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with following the trends. (By all means, please go ahead and maintain a basis for my job.) But subscribing to a craze like Normcore, which requires so much care to look careless seems like those girls who spend hours doing a "make-up free" make-up look, Bobbi Brown style. It's all quite self-conflicting. There's nothing natural, relaxed or indeed normal about being so obsessive about looking non-obsessive, the whole idea actually makes the phenomenon entirely redundant. If only it had a touch of self-irony… but for all its hipster appeal, Normcore doesn't strike me as the most tongue-in-cheek type of trend. In a world where character is key, choosing the nondescript is really rather pretentious, but for some I guess that's the appeal. And in that sense, it could be a blessing in disguise for those of us who abide by a diametrically opposite approach to dressing, and have, on occasion, been sneered at for looking extravagant. Because next to Normcore's pious rules for dressing down, covering yourself in designer print garments that were, say, embroidered by hand using some elaborate medieval method suddenly doesn't seem so pretentious anymore. 

Fashion is about expression. Many different and contrasting styles make the world visually interesting. While I'm not usually in the business of discouraging people from dressing the way they want, I have a hard time detecting the visually interesting element in Normcore. It can be as intellectually fascinating as it wants, but if it's not eye-catching what exactly is its contribution to the world? In a Western society that's spent the better part of the last century or two breaking down conventions and creating freedom of speech, freedom of appearance, there is nothing exciting about looking or being normal, let alone striving for it. Normcore's fearlessness of being dull is pretty brave in a world that expects the opposite, but wouldn't you rather want a little magic in these times of endless social and economic despair? Of course, if Normcore is good for nothing else, perhaps it will finally make people invest in some boring basics of a better quality instead of always hitting the high street for them. Because when all is said and done, basics are all these people wear, right? Looking at it that way, Normcore is just another parade of the Emperor's New Clothes: something incredibly old posing as something entirely new. And in a fashion world that hasn't had an original idea since grunge, teasing with fake newness is just plain cruel.



Text Anders Christian Madsen

Think Pieces
anders christian madsen
think piece
the new issue
summer 14