Normcore is Bullsh*t

As a disabled person who wears leg braces and uses a wheelchair, finding clothes I can even wear has always been a challenge.

Trousers and shoes are the worst. My clothes shopping experience usually involves a lot of sighing at the endless rails of skinny jeans, leggings and high heels before returning home to search for boyfriend jeans on eBay (to pair with Ugg boots on days when my feet can’t handle any other shoes, naturally). Anything to stop me having to spend every day in sweatpants. Wide-legged trousers are always a welcome change, but don’t get me started on harem pants or those deceptive dropped-crotch trousers that were popular a couple of years ago. Sure, they fit over my braces, but at what cost? Accidentally cosplaying as a member of X-Factor-era One Direction?

1352325977_justin-bieber-lg

Or this tool. No thanks.

As I grew up, I began to think that standing out can be a wonderful thing, that having an awkward or different looking body opens up all manner of possibilities of challenging what a “normal” or “natural” body should look like. I started dressing in bolder clothes. Clothes that helped tell the world who I was, clothes that challenged the stereotype of disabled people as a pitiful, unattractive, sexless homogeneous mass. It made me feel great. After all, clothes are supposed to be fun, right?

It turns out I needn’t have bothered. The latest on-trend, anti-trend trendy trend is here, and it’s called normcore, coming soon to your local independent vegan cafe. The tagline: Normal, the New Different! (or something.)

elaineaugust19

Normcore, as Fiona Duncan puts it in NY Mag, is a “self-aware, stylized blandness.” It’s Uniqlo windbreakers, unbranded sweatpants and nondescript running shoes. “Embracing sameness” is postured as a way of freeing yourself from the tyranny of a world where looks are everything. Normcore offers “a blank slate and an open mind” to those who swap their skinny jeans for straight up dad-jeans.

“Brilliant,” you might think. “No more try-hard posturing and letting our clothes do the talking.” Normcore is an equalizer.

The only problem? Not all bodies are created equal. Or, to be more precise, not all bodies are not valued equally. To approach the situation in any other way is bullshit.

What passes for a self-aware rejection of fashion on one person will be seen in a completely different way on another body. I think back to activist Eddie Ndopu’s brilliant article on what clothing means to him as a self-described “black queer crip,” and how he uses fashion as a way of challenging ableist assumptions of disabled people’s place in the world. As he puts it: “Sweats and clothes labeled ‘frumpy’ engender pity. And that is why I refuse to wear them in public.” Normcore may be one form of resistance, but dressing to the nines is his.

babes

Eddie Ndopu and Jillian Mercado. Both very stylish, very non-normcore.

So who exactly can embody the normcore aesthetic? Duncan suggests that it’s all about being nondescript and blending in with others, but isn’t it easy to differentiate between who is normcore and who is, well… normal? She mentions the “cool kids” and “downtown chicks” she spots in their fleece bodywarmers, which suggests to me that there is at least something which marks them as part of this trend. In the same way that a middle-class mum can turn up at parent-teacher evening at her kid’s school in sweatpants but a working-class parent can’t for fear of being judged “sloppy,” normcore is for the privileged few who can be identified as cool regardless of what they’re wearing. As Kristen Iversen points out: “The truth is that some people don’t need to worry about their identities because their status is secure.”

In a way, normcore reminds me of the whole “natural beauty” thing in that, just as there’s nothing really natural about that, there’s nothing really normal about normcore. Both privilege a certain look, a sort of cultivated invisibility. A whole lot of work can go into a fresh faced makeup-less look, and the normcore look is deliberately stylized. It is this self-awareness that makes it ultimately another way of excluding people. It’s loaded with the same bullshit presumptions as the phrases “growing old gracefully” or “real women.” Nothing exists in a vacuum, and when we think of these buzz words, we think of a certain type of person, one that adheres to certain standards — of beauty, age, race, gender, ability and social standing.

Blending in is a privilege only available to a few. Not being judged for your appearance is reserved for fewer yet. The “look of nothing” is never going to be available to those who are marked as “other” because the world has already placed identifiable markers on us. Controlling the way we look, even embracing the fact that we stand out, is a way of challenging this.

I couldn’t blend in no matter how hard I tried, and although it’s taken a long time and a lot of work, I’m grateful for that. But just as I’ve finally embraced the fact that I’ll never be “normal,” it becomes the next trend to aspire to.

No thanks, I think I’ll stay weird.

(Photos courtesy of Urbantimes.com, Manufactured1987, La Modella Mafia, various online retailers)

Cat Smith

I am a PhD student at the London College of Fashion. I like black knitwear and big jewelry and I want to be a pop star when I grow up.

  • Jamie James

    *Slow claps* This was a really good essay. As soon as I heard about “normcore” and saw who its representatives supposedly were, I couldn’t believe that it was a thing. But like most “things” it applies to a very small and as you said, privileged group of people. If I decided to dress like that, I’d definitely be labeled as looking sloppy or just being a really poor dresser.

    • thebean

      normcore only exists in the mind of a doctorate student whose article you just read. people in real life would never identify as normcore and if they did then they would be douchebags just the same. people buy nondescript clothes for a variety of reasons, not because they’re consciously exercising privilege. i like wearing nondescript clothes because i don’t want to become a walking advertisement and i don’t have enough money to dress “to the 9s.”

      • Robert Harrison

        Privilege is rarely consciously exercised. That’s the point you spectacularly missed.

        • Martine

          Privilege is VERY often consciously exercised. If you accuse people of mocking underprivileged then thats exactly what you are saying. However, thats not what is happening. People are making a sincere choice to look a certain way simply because they like it. No over thinking needed.

          • Robert Harrison

            The whole thrust of the privilege debate, in the social inequality sense, is that the privileged are to a large degree unaware and so view their status as universal. Have you been asleep since 1988?

            People may try anything. The very basic point you missed is that though to run a marathon or write a book is great, to then label such achievements normal is obviously problematic.

          • Martine

            Why does anything have to be labeled? And my point just there wasn’t about labeling. It was simply that there is nothing wrong with a trend that is not for everyone. You myst have not read the article. This guy is pissed because he feels that dressing like Prince is his special way of rebelling, and there should be no other, because he can’t pull it off.
            As for privileged people; its not a line that separates the privileged from the unprivileged. Its a spectrum, and everyone falls somewhere along the curve. Its a very meaningless term. The writer here is basically saying that because he is from a marginalized group, he feels he has the right to discredit a fashion look that does not look good on him, and others like him. So who feels privileged? No one has the privilege to dictate fashion.
            In any case, what people are opting for just now in fashion is not “normalcy” its more an anonymity of the CLOTHING. Not their own.

          • meh

            It’s hard to see what you are reacting to when you’re reacting to it. You might feel like your opinion is somehow the minority “most truthful” opinion that needs to get said, but actually, your opinions are kinda just like everyone else’s. Why fight so hard against disability activists? Feminists? People on the internet have their worldviews totally skewed.

          • Martine

            Why would I care if my opinion is minority, majority or in between? And why bother describing my point rather then responding to it? Possibly because you have no answer.

          • Buttercup Rocks

            Choosing how to dress is very much a privilege. If you’re dirt poor; if you’re sized out of the high street; if you’re disabled; if you’re likely to get the living shit kicked out of you for expressing your gender in a way the majority might find unsettling…then you may not enjoy that privilege.

            I understand your aggression. I too hate privilege arguments because they put people’s backs up. I would rather tell a detractor what it’s like for me than what I think it’s like for them. But that’s exactly what the author has done and you’re still being a git about it. No one’s expecting you to apologise or feel guilty for enjoying that privilege. All acknowledging it as one would do is make you a more rounded and compassionate human being but, hey, maybe you’re not interested in that.

          • Martine

            No. Choosing how to dress can be done by someone that has the choice of more then one item of clothing. You don’t need limitless choice to choose. No one has the freedom to choose whatever they want, nor should they. I may want to run around nude, but its illegal.
            I am being far less aggressive then you, or the writer of this article, so its interesting that you choose to call my statement aggressive, but again its beside the point. Its also completely beside the point to discuss how he/she perceives anything. I am not talking perception.

            My point is simple: I see this style of clothing doesn’t work for him. But how does that make it bad for anyone else?
            I don’t feel bad for arrogant people who feel they need to control or belittle others to make life easier for themselves. So my compassion isn’t going to them.

          • Buttercup Rocks

            From my perspective, you’re splitting hairs, ranting for the sake of ranting and being quite obtuse. Not everything is about – or intended for – you. That’s probably why the article didn’t resonate with you.

      • Martine

        Exactly. Thank you. Except for the money. I certainly could, and have worn expensive clothing, and still do. I like quality. But just now many are not in the mood for so called luxury clothing. And the effective fit of things that fit right at the waist, especially pants without falling down, layering for warmth rather then effect, and generally creating a more simple, less loud look is appealing. Its a matter of wanting, not giving things up.

        • Buttercup Rocks

          Oh, come on. Justin Bieber is a tool. I think we can all agree on that. And I think she was referring to his outfit and what he looked like in it – which was a tool.

          • Martine

            I don’t think his family would agree. Do you? And what I read is not he dresses like a tool, but the statement about the young man.

          • Buttercup Rocks

            I imagine his family have probably got their respective heads in their hands on account of his utterly tool-like behaviour of late. And I think you’ll find the piece was written by a woman.

          • Martine

            How does that matter? And you know his family?

          • Buttercup Rocks

            Hello? You don’t know ‘em either and you’re the one who brought them into the discussion. I was merely being flippant. However, if my kid was spitting on the fans who made him and behaving like a twenty four carat horse’s arse in the full glare of public scrutiny, I’d probably be quite embarrassed.

            The writer’s gender only matters in as much as she is female and you referred to her as a guy.

      • Buttercup Rocks

        If you take a standard size and don’t have an aversion to wearing second hand clothes, you can dress amazingly well (and distinctively), for next-to-nothing. I’m willing to bet there are some other reasons why you like wearing nondescript clothes.

        • Martine

          Yes, perhaps he likes it. Thinks it looks good, and feels that he comes through best wearing it.

          • Buttercup Rocks

            I’m sure he does. I was simply pointing out that a lack of funds needn’t be a barrier to “dressing to the nines”.

    • Martine

      Normcore representatives? MWAHAHAHAHA. Yeah. Right. Theres a special handshake and everything….. Its not a movement. No one is doing it consciously. It is a thing, done by many, in many different ways with no co ordination. I am not even sure how it got a name. Its mostly in the heads of some journalists on a slow news day. But it wouldn’t work for you, so it must be bad.

  • Wheelingalong24

    Love this article, it really spoke to me as wheelchair fashion blogger.
    All of this is why I got so into fashion & put more ‘spoons’/energy than I really have spare into wearing up-to-date fashion & stylish clothing….so that people try to see me as a person rather than an object of pity in a wheelchair…… Sad but true

    Sally

    http://www.wheelingalong24.com

  • MKL

    Love this critique. My initial reaction to normcore was something along the lines of, “Ugh, more high-fashion/academic navel-gazing from incredibly privileged individuals,” but you’ve articulated why this aesthetic is truly problematic and I applaud you for it. Thanks for your insight.

  • slackmerchant

    Because normcore is a joke, I can’t tell if this piece is also sarcastic.

    Normcore ridicules high-fashion as obscene and inaccessible and it suggests that the notion of “normalcy” is fundamentally flawed; that bodies and clothes which are not read as “beautiful” can be reconceptualized that way through fiat.

    • Buttercup Rocks

      I think you have a typo there and don’t know what your final word was meant to be. However, the point of this article is that certain values are assigned to bodies that are not assigned to others – even if those bodies happen to be wearing an approximation of the same garments.

      • Martine

        Yes. And how is that wrong? This is true of everything else. A good voice is seen as better then being tone deaf. A good mind is seen as better then a dull one. A kind disposition( missing here) is seen as better then a crass one. A strong pair of legs is seen as better then a weak pair. Its not about derision of the one, but a celebration of the other.

        • Buttercup Rocks

          You can celebrate without having to put another party down, particularly when much of what is celebrated in our culture is totally arbitrary and the effect of doing so results in those who are regarded as inferior experiencing everything from discrimination in the workplace to extreme physical violence.

          And, talking of crass dispositions, how is opining “a strong pair of legs is seen as better then a weak pair” in a thread responding to a piece written by a disabled writer anything other than derisory?

      • slackmerchant

        No typo… fiat is an order. So, we can declare bodies as beautiful, they are not beautiful/not beautiful inherently.

        I recognize the “point” of the article, but the target of its criticism, normcore, is itself a joke. And it’s a joke that targets precisely the kind of normative bodies and standards of beauty the author is taking issue with.

        • Buttercup Rocks

          Thanks for the clarification. Alas, the only fiat I’m familiar with is a small Italian car. I still don’t really get what you’re saying though. Martine, for instance, seems to take normcore very seriously. Are you insinuating that embracing non-fashion-as-fashion makes her a fool? Because abrasive as she is I don’t think it does. Or are you saying that anyone who embraces normcore can call themselves beautiful and that in itself is a joke? Because, if you are, it’s not funny.

          • slackmerchant

            I think writing an article declaring Normcore to be “bullshit” misses the satire at the heart of normcore.

            Traditional fashion either treats bodies as ghostly figures which act merely as hangars, or as hyper-sexualized fetish objects. At the same time that the body at the heart of fashion is held to exacting standards and denigrated, fashion has become (for most) an elite and capital-intensive interest.

            Normcore is a reaction to these developments. It parodies the way that fashion is a way for the wealthy to flaunt their status and cachet. A whole-hearted embrace of kitsch that doesn’t separate the tasteless from the tastemakers can only be a joke.

            I just think it makes a lot more strategic sense to embrace normcore as an anti-fashion fashion because of its potential to destroy the notion of “normal” and embrace beauty in the mundane/abject.

          • Buttercup Rocks

            Nope; still think you’re missing the point of the article. It doesn’t destroy the notion of normal if those designated as “normal” by the world and his wife are judged differently to those who are treated as other or less-than when dressing the same way.

            I also wouldn’t describe normcore as kitsch. Kitsch may be devoid of good taste, but normcore is literally taste-less. Totes different kettle of fish.

  • Emma Caterine

    Great essay, I feel the same way as a trans woman in a society where we are expected to be ‘men in dresses’ wearing ridiculous, feminine but frumpy clothing that reflects a ‘perverse’ sexuality or lack thereof. Fuck that noise, I’m dress better than all the ‘normal’ kids and flaunt it hard in their tasteless faces, stealing their boyfriends and girlfriends cause who wants to date someone who wears sweatpants in order to be cool?

    • ophidic

      “I’m dress better than all the ‘normal’ kids and flaunt it hard in their tasteless faces, stealing their boyfriends and girlfriends cause who wants to date someone who wears sweatpants in order to be cool?”

      If your concern is looking better than a group of other “kids” then your priorities are fucked and you’re fucked and basically fuck you.

    • Martine

      Wow, thats not shallow or anything. No one is telling you what to do or calling you names. So maybe have the same respect for others? You should think about Karma the next time you feel like you are not accepted. Remember that you called a bunch of people you don’t know tasteless, ridiculous, and felt you could steal the people they love away from them. All because you don’t like what they chose to wear. Remember that, and realize that you deserve the same treatment you give others.

  • ophidic

    People can’t do anything without someone feeling excluded. Typical crybaby crap.

  • hsd;jds;khf;hf;fj;;JH

    ohmygaaaawd boo hoo people want to dress bland, casual, and comfortable and make it hip. big fricken deal

  • Holly Sh

    Another critique of normcore, at least here in Australia, is that it rides heavily off of the way that so-called “lads” dress – expensive sportswear and fancy sneakers. There’s a nasty element of rich kids appropriating the dress that’s otherwise seen as a marker of being working-class or poor and dangerous. Kind of over it, thanks for naming and shaming.

    • Buttercup Rocks

      Ooh, yes. I hadn’t even thought about that. I thought “slumming it” died out in the 80s.

  • meh

    I really love this article too, but what if I dress “normcore,” or plainish, just to be comfortable? (Loose pants, loose things?) While it is bullshit that others may look down upon dressing up, and dressing up as a form of resistence, it’s also lame for others to look down on people dressing down. Like, we shouldn’t be placing value judgments on one way of dressing or another, because either way it’s telling someone what to do with their body.

    • meh

      This article is really great, though, and in reply to the person with the keyboard-mash username and ophidic, it’s important because the experience of a disabled person is different than the experience of someone who’s not, and it’s not fair to say it’s not a big deal or it’s “crybaby crap” at all, as in, fuck you right back.

      • Martine

        So a crippled person is not a crybaby even when they are acting completely like a crybaby. Sorry. Wrong. Not to mention Emma catering is saying that she can treat other people like crap, and enjoy it because they dress in a way she doesn’t like, and deserves to be told “fuck you” for that. We all have unique experiences. You don’t get some super special pass no matter what yours is.

        • meh

          How is any “crippled person” being a crybaby? How are you not being a crybaby? (Maybe we’re all just a bunch of crybabies ha)
          I don’t think it’s okay to treat people badly because of how they dress. I don’t think the author does either. The point the author is trying to make is that some people get treated badly because of how they dress when they dress “normcore,” and apparently get treated badly when they call that out as well. I also think special experiences kind of do allow people to speak up about them. Others will take that as being an asshole, but if someone who’s endured bullying their whole life decides to say “fuck everyone I’m fabulous” or to make a joke about stealing girlfriends or something I really don’t think that’s being much of an asshole.

          internet discourse 101 gimme my B.A. already

  • Jessica M. Moye

    Normcore or Haute Couture, I wear wtf I want. I’m not throwing on an entire cute outfit to get groceries from the corner market. Nope! It’s not just what you wear but how you wear it and how comfortable you feel in it. I’m cute in my pjs, because I feel cute in them. I wake up AND go to sleep like this. BOOM! I get dressed when I go to work or just feel like it!

  • Martine

    Its not mocking, nor ironic. Its not dad dressing, nor is it pretending to be Seinfeld. Why talk about something you know so little about? Its basically just simplified, non brand-name aesthetic. Its not just the realm of hipsters, its trickling to a lot of areas. Normcore isn’t even a good word for it. Its just a more simple, somewhat nostalgic look. No ione does it with the intention of having no identity. thats what others have ascribed to it. There are no representatives speaking about it, because thats just nonsense. Its just people wearing what they think LOOKS GOOD. And I agree. Enough with the naught-ids and low waisted, tight, or self consciously slouchy BS. Enough patterns, It bags, or metallic. Lets pair down. Or not. But how dare anyone tell others what they can or can’t wear?

    • Buttercup Rocks

      Check out the exactitudes project:-

      http://www.exactitudes.com

      If enough people wear it, it’s a uniform/identity, even if it fancies itself as an absence or rejection of identity.

      And nostalgic for what exactly? Certain people have always dressed to fade into the woodwork, either because they think it’s good taste, or because they haven’t really got any taste, or because they don’t “get” trends, or because they have no money, or because they haven’t got the physical or emotional energy to invest in them.

      • Martine

        1.Its not a rejection of identity. Its a rejection of identity shouted through clothing.
        2. Its not about values, its about esthetic.
        3. Its nostalgic for peoples childhood in the early 90s, as it is mostly worn by people who were kids at that time.
        4.Its not dull. Basics and uniforms are not dull. Its not dressing to fade into the woodwork. Its dressing to stand out for other reasons then novelty clothing.
        5. To a certain point its a homage to men and women who stand out immensely, but dress modestly. People like Jerry Seinfeld, a great comedian, or Steve Jobs, a great inventor. But only to a point. It is individual. Everyone has their own take on how to do it like any trend. People still do it with an eye to proportions, and to look attractive. No one is denying that they are putting in effort. But its just done with different elements. Its every bit as creative as wearing fifty different clashing prints, blue eyliner, It bags, statement jewelry or anything else. Its done by people who LOVE fashion. It IS a fashion.

        • Buttercup Rocks

          1) There is a spectrum. It’s possible for clothes to look distinctive,
          individual, interesting and all manner of other things the wearer
          wishes to convey without “shouting”.

          2) Yes, of course I read it. I just don’t happen to share their aesthetic
          and wished to point out that whatever you call it, (or don’t)
          normcore is still a trend/fad/unifrom like any other no matter how
          rebellious its proponents feel they are being. Did you look at the
          exactitudes link?

          3) I was an adult in the 90s and I can assure you there were label
          queens, stylistic bandwagons that everyone wanted to jump on,
          shouty clothing, to say nothing of peer pressure exerted on kids
          to have branded, overhyped must-have, items back then too.

          As a plus sized woman in the UK, the 90s happened to be one of
          the bleakest decades for me in terms of lack of choice in what I
          was able to wear. I was forced to don nondescript
          clothing in drab colours and it was fucking grim.

          4) Each to their own. It’s not fun to me. It’s bland, frumpy, and
          unimaginative. I come from a design background. I work with
          people in the creative industries. Colour and print rock my world.
          Being able to express myself through my clothing after years of
          being forced into bad quality, overpriced and nondescript clothing
          is a privilege I haven’t always enjoyed. I have every intention of
          enjoying it into my dotage. Plus my age and size make me invisible
          to street fashion bloggers anyway.

          5)

  • Buttercup Rocks

    This is excellent and thought provoking. I’m a fat woman five years off 60, who loves clothes while despising the fashion industry, and I very much dress to be noticed. This piece got me thinking more deeply about the reasons why I do that.

    Yes, it’s a visual expression of my personality and creativity. However I also do it because society would prefer me to dress as invisibly as possible and fuck that noise. Likewise I do it because I want to confound expectations of how fat women – and older women – are expected to look. If I embraced normcore, most of the the clothes available to me would be of inferior quality because I can’t buy my “uniform” from Uniqlo or Gap, etc., ergo I would probably end up looking frumpy and apologetic, thereby embodying negative expectations of what fatter and older women are supposed to look like.

    I would be judged very differently than a young, slim thing who has the choice to fade into the woodwork if that happens to be her thing.

  • Pingback: Words I Wheel By

  • Catherine Edmends

    what a lot of crap, really.

  • Pingback: the body beautiful and normcore | queenly thunder beast

  • Victor Beteta

    One of the first group to come up with the term Normcore was K-hole. If you read their report they talk about normcore being adaptable and there isn’t such as thing as normal. Normcore according to them should be able to free you and make your life more peaceful. At this point Normcore has been taken out of it’s original context and become about exclusivity. When normcore was really about personal freedom.

  • Pingback: The Anxieties of Big Data; The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth | Bamboo Innovator

  • Pingback: Drones: An Interview with Ingrid Burrington | ART21 Magazine

  • Pingback: On Normcore (and why I think it’s bull) | Queen Of The Moors

  • http://gwenberumen.contently.com Gwen Berumen

    im pretty late, but this is an excellent essay. i find it interesting when certain trends set out to “equalize” the masses, when in reality fashion is something that survives only because we are not all equal.

    it’s important to think about things other than class when talking about the intersections of our identities, and how we choose to present those identities.