1. A fashion movement, c. 2014, in which scruffy young urbanites swear off the tired street-style clichés of the last decade — skinny jeans, wallet chains, flannel shirts — in favor of a less-ironic (but still pretty ironic) embrace of bland, suburban anti-fashion attire. (See Jeans, mom. Sneakers, white.)
2. A sociocultural concept, c. 2013, having nothing to do with fashion, that concerns hipster types learning to get over themselves, sometimes even enough to enjoy mainstream pleasures like football along with the rest of the crowd.
3. An Internet meme that turned into a massive in-joke that the news media keeps falling for. (See below).
A little more than a month ago, the word “normcore” spread like a brush fire across the fashionable corners of the Internet, giving name to a supposed style trend where dressing like a tourist — non-ironic sweatshirts, white sneakers and Jerry Seinfeld-like dad jeans — is the ultimate fashion statement.
As widely interpreted, normcore was mall chic for people — mostly the downtown/Brooklyn creative crowd — who would not be caught dead in a shopping mall. Forget Martin Van Buren mutton chops; the way to stand out on the streets of Bushwick in 2014, apparently, is in a pair of Gap cargo shorts, a Coors Light T-shirt and a Nike golf hat.Regardless of how insular the concept may be (Stop the presses! People are dressing in normal clothes!), the idea has spread far beyond the 718 area code. A Google search of normcore now yields about 559,000 results. Fashion publications like Lucky have offered normcore shopping guides brimming with velour pants and Teva sandals. Even the French were quick to give “le normcore” a kiss-kiss on both cheeks, as if it were the Jerry Lewis of American style trends.
A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.
Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.
The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recenttrend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.
As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.
Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”
Normcore Hall of Fame
It hardly mattered. Normcore had taken on a life of its own.
Within days of the article, GQ magazine used the term to describe an emergent frump-chic look that was detectable in high fashion: “Men’s wear designers like Patrik Ervell and Louis Vuitton’s Kim Jones have taken the classic Patagonia Retro-X fleece jacket and made it luxe. Birkenstocks aren’t just a fashion statement, they’ve got designer collaborations.”
Online, the normcore-spotting of celebrities — Adam Sandler in Adidas training pants, Jimmy Kimmel in an untucked dress shirt — became sport. It got so out of hand that someone created the Google Chrome extension No More #NORMCORE, which blocks references to the term.
Predictably, a normcore backlash was soon brewing. In an Elle.com post called “Why the ‘Normcore’ Phenomenon is a Fraud,” Lauren Sherman described it as ’90s retro dressed up in ideological drag. “Dressing like an uncool dad is in the fiber of hipster culture,” she wrote. “It’s just that, until now, the ’70s and early ’80s were the go-to reference point. Now that the ’90s are coming into play, adults who were teenagers during that era distinctly recall living among Jerry Seinfelds clad in white sneakers and ill-fitting jeans.”
But the backlash only served to reinforce the trend, as normcore continued to metastasize beyond fashion circles.
The website for Dazed and Confused, the British style magazine, attempted to answer the musical question “What does Normcore sound like?” (Think of Devonté Hynes, Sean Nicholas Savage and Fleetwood Mac.) Car and Driver offered “The 5 Most Normcore Automobiles” (they selected five Toyota Camry models).
Like a mass sociological experiment, the question now is whether repetition, at a certain point, makes reality. Even those who coined the phrase concede that normcore has taken on a life of its own. “If you look through #normcore on Twitter or Instagram, people are definitely posting pictures of that look,” said Gregory Fong, a K-Hole founder. “Whether they believe it’s real or a joke, it’s impossible to say, but it’s there and it’s happening.”
It certainly seems to be. Sort of.
Style watchers at some of New York’s trendier boutiques are getting glimpses. “There’s always a hunger to find the next thing, start a new movement, and you can see a little bit of that in the normcore movement — the light washes and the Jesus sandals coming back,” said Matthew Breen, a founder of Carson Street Clothiers in SoHo. “I think it’s a complete media creation,” he added. “But the second GQ writes about it, then it becomes a trend.”
Francesca Grosso, a manager at Opening Ceremony in SoHo, said she had never heard anyone mention normcore on the sales floor, but still, she said she saw influences on the streets. “It’s girls wearing Timberlands, wearing household brands, putting things together that are normal — mom jeans, boyfriend jeans,” she said.
It is even more obvious in Brooklyn, said Thomas Hall, a bearded, tattoo-covered 30-year-old who lives in East Williamsburg and sells $400 Japanese raw denim jeans for a living. “Just walking around my neighborhood, you see a lot of kids like that — white sneakers, really washed-out jeans, really ugly leather baseball hats,” he said. “It’s pretty awful.”
Are they ahead of him on the fashion curve? Hopelessly behind him? The first question is whether they are on their way to a job whipping up absinthe-infused cocktails at Freemans, or grilling bacon-Cheddar burgers at TGI Friday’s.