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?
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.)
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.
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)