Normcore was almost dead. It’s as if it was slowly being sucked away into the past, or at least that’s what many of us have wanted to see.
Last week, Gap significantly eroded that possibility with their new series of commercials by David Fincher, the Academy Award-nominated director, entitled “Dress Normal.” The 45-second shorts accompany a similarly curt print campaign featuring actors Bobby Cannavale and Elisabeth Moss, as well as former model Anjelica Huston. The images, all shot by Glen Luchford, aren’t exceptionally inspirational or convincing. This is an oddity: Gap’s tee shirt and jeans magazine ad formula has produced some rather inviting images of our favorite celebrities. These, however, are cold.
While the print ads lack confidence, Fincher’s commercials excel in choreographed uncoolness; the uncoolness at the heart of normcore’s project. In the black-and-white videos, we see models cast in trademark Fincher lighting—dark and grim yet lush. There are four of them. In one, simply titled “Drive,” a soaking wet model pulls off her jeans in the back of an old car as two other models drive along, a fourth sleeping alongside the first. The message that flashes across the screen at the end: “the uniform of rebellion and conformity.” Another, “Golf,” shows a model in a tee shirt and jeans stepping out of an old Mercedes at a driving range, at which point she dances quirkily into a random location where golfers are about to practice their swings. Another message: “let your actions speak louder than your clothes.”
For the most part, the models’ actions have nothing to do with their clothes, which precisely fulfills the promise behind letting one’s actions speak louder than what they wear. This programmed anonymity is what was first identified as a key notion of #normcore, earlier this year. There’s something else to think about, though. For, as late as this “Dress Normal” campaign is, Fincher is able to add something interesting to what we know of normcore’s significance (and danger).
Fincher maintains a commitment to ambiguity, which is an organizing feature of each video in the series. One can’t know where the narrative begins or where it ends; there’s no pretext to grasp. The clothes just seem to exist as part of the alienating world Fincher envisions, and for the most part the fact that these are fashion ads is mostly suppressed until he final frames. We don’t get a sense of how excited this person was to get dressed, or what the clothes mean to them. These clothes have no event connected to them, no history. For 45-seconds, clothes try to evade a culture that, through Instagram and style blogs, immortalizes the moment in which we are seen as dressed, in the outfit of our intent.
Fincher reveals, perhaps inadvertently, how a fear of anchored time and narrative plays into how normcore has developed. Just as these videos speak to an aversion towards being seen or identified as a participant in fashion, they also unmoor clothes in time. There’s no implication that the jeans the model sensually removes are new, as is the case in many former Gap commercials. Nor are they old. They just are: what you see is what you get. The ambiguity of Fincher’s directing lends itself surprisingly to this sense of authority. It’s as if we’re beholden to what the videos disclose.
Perhaps it’s this unassailable element of “fact” that makes normcore frustrating to some and alluring to others. It relies on absolutes. But this is also what’s needed to make normcore seem logical. The shrill ideological project behind “Dress Normal” is fundamentally at odds with the claim that normcore makes to facilitate individual anonymity. The movement wants to escape the surveillance of fashion, but doing so comes at an Orphic price: the internalization of another surveillance, in which everyone strives for the same uncool inconspicuousness.
In a way, Gap comes full circle with these ads. Recall that, in the 90s, Gap innovated cool uncool and sold it quite successfully. A few pithy ads resulted in the birth of a memorable cultural iconography, to which normcore is certainly indebted. Revisiting normcore, then, is like the uneasy homecoming during which you notice how much has changed. Where the ads of the 90s reveled in the collective joy of wearing cords or vests—an ad was literally titled “Everybody in Cords—these videos declare something more authoritarian and cynical. It remains to be seen how these videos will be received by a broader public. But only time will tell.