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Normcore Is the First Brilliant Meme of 2014

Normcore, a painfully normal fashion style popularized by a "trend forecasting group" in New York, is turning art students into Larry David lookalikes. Is fashion dead, or something? Chandler Levack investigates.

by Chandler Levack
Mar 19 2014, 3:05pm

Exterme normcore image via YouTube.

It is impossible to write about normcore without sounding like a graduate student, and as we all know: graduate students are the worst. I first discovered “normcore” by reading Fiona Duncan’s well-parsed essay in New York Magazine about a class of Brooklynites and Parsons students prone to dressing in Patagonia fleece vests and the most basic of Uniqlo staples. Instead of emulating a trendy art student look, they dress for mom and dad (and middle American tourist conspicuous in New York) identities. Style icons of normcore include Larry David, Steve Jobs (guhh, turtlenecks!) and Blood Orange singer Devonte Hynes. There are no female style icons of normcore, although I’d hazard to mention Rosanne Barr, Sharon Stone in her Gap turtleneck at the Oscars, and the 90s iconography of Calvin Klein models. The aesthetic of “normcore” seems deliberately situated in the 90s, perhaps because that is an era that its wearers are most nostalgic for. It is also really easy to pick up a “trendy” Kathy Ireland mock ribbed turtleneck at a Value Village right now.  

I figured Duncan’s piece was just another one of those fashion trend pieces that are my linkbait kryptonite. Like when the New York Times Magazine convinced me that all the hottest girls in Williamsburg were dressing like Elaine Benes and I went around carrying a leather suitcase for a week. Or just plain “seapunk.” Remember “seapunk?” I bought chalk for my hair to make it blue like a dolphin. It was depressing.

Now I believe normcore might be the first brilliant meme of 2014 because it dares to talk about a touchy subject for mainstream hipster culture—class. The ironic appropriation (although with “normcore,” the most interesting/existential aspect of it is that it is not ironic, but meant as a spiritual quest towards owning your identity, not your body, which is also kind of why people do MDMA) of wealthy arts students wearing Ralph Lauren CHAPS pullovers, “I Heart NYC” tourist ball caps and white New Balance sneakers is a desire to emulate the “normal person," and be seen as recognizable to them, although you can’t help but see them as “othered.” To simply look like other people, that is. “Normcore” was pioneered by the artistic New York “trend forecasting group” K-hole, who function as enlightened cool hunters. Emily Segal of K-Hole says that the movement is based on cultural empathy, “seeing that as an opportunity for connection, instead of as evidence that your identity has dissolved.” Where are your Jeffrey Campbell Litas now, bitch?!

After what feels like an eon of street style, I’m starting to think that the new fetish object of 2014 is the normie. This year on Reflektor, The Arcade Fire wrote a sleazy, 80s-period Rolling Stones-indebted song called “Normal Person,” in which Win Butler opines, “Is anything as strange as a normal person? Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?”

Television, as innovative and thrilling as it is, still hadn’t captured the plight of the normal person until Breaking Bad, (still, it wasn’t until Walter White wore his freaky pork pie from Goorin Bros. that he really let out his inner Heisenberg). Even the twats on Girls (I mean that lovingly) are a combination of Urban Outfitters separates who think they’re special—normal, boring, hateful young girls desperately trying to be considered individuals. It’s kind of what makes the show work. I really hope Jessa tries to rock what my mom used to call a “fluff fluff” next season.

But Arcade Fire is for very normal people, relationships are maintained on DVD box sets of critically acclaimed television, and the biggest Kreayshawn-indebted diss to call someone on Twitter is “basic.” There is too much individualism in the world (I can’t keep holding conversations about artisanal jams and oil pulling anymore) that I understand the need to take back “the new normal.” As K-Hole wrote in a marketing document/brand anxiety thesis statement: “The job of the advanced consumer is managing anxiety, period.”

To start my identity over, blank slate 90s Kate Moss-style, in a t-shirt and a pair of Sears jeans, even if that will actually just make me look like a fat mom, or a non-violent offender out on parole. To go back to the womb, the grade 5 classroom, where everyone just wore novelty Northern Getaway sweatshirts and neon slush pants. To live inside your parents’ closet forever. Would it make me whole again?

No matter what I wear, I always feel like a hopeless individual trying to fit in and conceal what I consider to be my flaws (an improbably large ass, stretch marks I like to call “lightning bolts”). Still I don’t think erasing my identity in a pair of stirrup pants “curated” from Value Village is the answer. Because that kind of tokenistic dressing isn’t fair to Middle America. It’s actually insulting to hold a mirror up to the normal person in hopes that it will free your art student mind. It reminds me of a story I love about Harmony Korine filming Gummo in Nashville and finding a piece of a human shoulder in a pillowcase. “Look at all we have access to here,” he supposedly told his terrified P.A.

Gummo is a brilliant movie but it comes with all kinds of shitty hipster artistic baggage—you have to be careful of appropriating white trash culture just as much. A tokenistic nod to the onion blossom tourists of Times Square won’t find artists new forms of beauty and truth. Because when your style icon is Larry David, but you’re a 22 year old video installation artist living in Bed-Stuy, what are you trying to achieve?

A couple months ago I was asked to be an emcee at a wedding for a childhood friend in Brantford, Ontario. I wore by all accounts what is considered a “weird dress.” The ceremony was held next to the pool, so it smelled like chlorine. The bride and groom danced to an *NSYNC song. There were carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing and a weird old man bought me a Crown Royal with Sprite in a hotel bar called “Addison’s.” I came with my parents so I had to dance with my mom and a reverend’s wife to “Blurred Lines.” One of the bridesmaids drank too many Smirnoff Ices and passed out under a table. It was by all accounts, a totally “normal wedding.”

Except the bride and groom are total freaks. He makes bone art out of the decorative arrangements of leftover chicken wings. She has watched the entire box set of Charmed multiple times—when she finishes, she’ll start it over in an infinite loop of Shannen Doherty, Rose McGowan and Alyssa Milano, the trifecta of faux-Wiccans with hair extensions, practicing magic. The weird obsessive dedication she has for a vaguely popular show on the WB Network is the same love she has for her bone collector husband. I watched them slow dance to a song I hadn’t heard since Carson Daly announced it on TRL and teared up, thinking: “I gotta make some changes in my life.” Everything good is normative. 


@clevack

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