normcore [n/adj] – a unisex clothing trend and cultural aesthetic which encourages plain, unremarkable dress and thoroughly rejects the commercial preoccupations of modern contemporary fashion.
I began the process of changing my aesthetic about two years ago, after I remarkably and rather frightening lost thirty-five pounds my first year in college. Prior to that seminal, life-changing moment, I had paid very little attention to what I wore, mostly because I saw clothes as a way of hiding my body instead of embracing it. I haunted my high school in baggy college sweatshirts or loose button-downs in order to keep eyes away from the folds which jiggled and shook as I walked. When I got to Swarthmore, my aesthetic mostly remained the same until it became necessary for me to buy new clothes, thanks to my shrinking waistline. Women began to remark that I actually looked good in jeans, which prompted me to buy several pairs immediately thereafter. I grew tired of the hoodies which I had worn in high school and began to wear sweaters which accentuated my newfound figure a bit more as I slowly got comfortable in this new skin of mine.
The summer after freshman year, I made the largest amount of money my young mind had ever experienced, and I of course went mad buying things that I did not need in the process of reinventing myself. Every few years or so I would have this urge to make myself anew, to completely reconstruct my identity, my aesthetic, to match my changing mind and mentalities. So I bought a shit ton of clothes which I do not wear now, all in the process of trying to make myself into someone whose reflection I could actually stand to see.
Sophomore year, my aesthetic began to solidify. I realized that I had certain tastes, that I avoided certain colors and admired the collections at certain stores. I shopped often at Goodwill, buying sweaters for $4 and because I could, all the while amassing a wardrobe far too grand to fit in my college dorm room. I started to develop a taste in what is called normcore, a term which I ascribed to myself in the past as a label, a marker of identity, although now I am remiss to claim such a title, for reasons I will now explicate.
Normcore aesthetics are simple, unrefined, and deliberate. A person who dresses in normcore does so with the intention of slipping by social interactions without drawing attention to their clothes – or even their physical appearance in general. Proponents of normcore wear whatever fits and looks good, reject brand names and markers of socioeconomic status. Normcore rejects commercialism and fashion culture, proposing instead that we focus on the internal aspects of our personalities as opposed to the means by which we project our desired selves through clothing.
Clothing is more than a way of covering the body, of keeping warm. We express ideas, beliefs, emotions and opinions through our fashion. The visual media of clothing is the first mechanism by which we ascertain information about an approaching person, their way of dress telling us, in those milliseconds of interaction between brain and eyeball, all that we need to know before we begin our encounter. It is so easy for us, as visual creatures, to enter interactions with one another already with set expectation in our mind based on nothing more than clothing. A person wearing a Polo rugby shirt and True Religion jeans is likely to be treated – or at least perceived – differently from a person wearing a graphic tee and basketball shorts. We map identity and personality onto the way we dress, and because of this, we use clothing as a form of language, as a form of communication. But like all communicative media, clothing has the potential to project mixed signals. It’s easy to see these two people – one in Trues and the other in basketball shorts – as belonging to two separate social classes, the former having access to such an expensive brand of denim jeans and the other preferring to wear clothes which are more modest, but this assertion alone is but an assumption, the likes of which must be corroborated via interaction and socialization. Depending on where you are in the United States, the person wearing the Polo rugby shirt may be unemployed and the person in the plain tee-shirt may be a multimillionaire.
Brands have significant amount of social power in the United States, for we use the power of brands and the visibility of logos to map out who we are as people, and the values we seek to represent. We glorify high fashion brands like Gucci, Givenchy, and Fendi because they represent the upper echelon of taste, prestige and glamor. We strive to purchase expensive brands because they not only show that we have accrued wealth, but that our gleaned money is also a part of who we are. Our consumer culture places emphases on the consumption of goods and services, and the more money you possess, the more visible your consumption tends to becomes. As one’s money increases, there is a desire to increase the way in which one spends their money and in what quantities. A $200 suit becomes a $500 suit until a $500 suit is seen as too cheap.
What normcore attempts to accomplish is to throw a log into this machine of visual culture by removing from the situation all markers of wealth and class. It becomes impossible to distinguish using visual clues the socioeconomic status of a person in a normcore aesthetic, for proponents of normcore often do not concern themselves with commercial fashion. They wear clothes which make them feel comfortable, which force outsiders to inquire within in order to see what they are truly like as people. They aspire to inhabit a world of honesty and integrity which commercial fashion denies and sees as superfluous and unprofitable.
Yet, normcore brands, on average, tend to be very, very expensive! This is the irony of what normcore attempts to exude, and why I struggle to see myself as a proponent. I have a limited budget, making less than $5000 a year with my on-campus jobs. What little money I have I attempt to save for future emergencies, like when I needed to buy a new computer this winter break because my old computer literally fell apart in my hands. This means that I don’t have a ton of money to spend on buying clothes within the normcore aesthetic, mostly because normcore clothing tends to be, on average, just as pricy, if not more so, than other aesthetics. Typical brands which cater to normcore aesthetics like American Apparel, SuperDry, Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch do not cater to the global audiences which normcore seeks to attract. These brands are notoriously out-of-reach for people who normcore has the potential to help as a burgeoning aesthetic – those without the facilities to afford expensive brands, but still wish to be treated as decent human beings in a world in which fashion seems to matter more than we agree that it should.
At the same time, there is a certain pretentiousness in attempting to dress unpretentiously. The deliberateness of plain dress is something which fashion bloggers detest in normcore, for they see its proponents as unfashionable and scoff at the fact that normcore is considered a legitimate fashion aesthetic. They believe that there are people who care about fashion and those who do not, and that normcore represents the vast majority of the latter, and should therefore not be considered a part of the former. Not to say that I agree with the vague and somewhat base statements of these nameless and faceless internet personalities, but I do agree that what normcore attempts to do as an aesthetic is push that we should pay less attention to our looks while failing to realize the hypocrisy of using fashion and visual culture as a way of criticizing and decrying fashion and visual culture.
When normcore is commodified, it loses its cultural and philosophical significance. It loses its conceptual uniqueness and becomes what it is to the outsider – a vulgar and rather unattractive aesthetic which seeks in a way to glorify its proponents’ sense of individualism by way of the capitalist structures which normcore is very much at odds with in the first place. It becomes hypocritical, and therefore becomes profitable – it becomes a shadow of itself.
My aesthetic is still normcore, but it is a more refined, more economical form which matches both my own interests and budget. I do not shop at stores like American Apparel, only enter the Gap when there’s a sale and even then I barely buy anything. I strive to wear clothes which say something about me, but do not say the wrong things. My clothing ideally speaks to my political, personal and artistic life, but do not reveal figures and statistics which only cloud our judgment, and make it harder to connect with one another. There is a certain deliberateness in my way of dress, which shows that I have put some effort into the curation of my outfits, that I have, still, some interest in my outward aesthetics, although they do not reflect things which are easily detectable and can be used to ascertain information about my character, information which is so easy to falsify for we are all impossibly skilled and incredibly flawed at what we do best – size one another up.