Normcore vs. Health Goth vs. Cutester: I Tried All Three to See Which Sucks Least
Do last year's flash-in-the-pan trends mean anything whatsoever?
Left to right: normal author, health goth author, cutester author, normcore author
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
We are officially balls deep in 2015, and the world still doesn't have a new youth subculture to show for it. Sure, in a few months we might all be turning our Levi's inside out and the finance bros will start wearing multiple neckties, but at the moment we're stuck with the same fashion scenes as 2014. That's not good, because last year sucked for fashion. It felt like we were all too busy recoiling at the Fappening and beheadings in the desert to make any good stuff happen. No genuine new youth subculture was born last year, which is probably why the media went ahead and invented some themselves.
The biggest of these invented lifestyles was the art of dressing like a newly divorced dad, or "normcore," which was apparently the most googled fashion term of 2014. The most irritating youth tribe of the year came to bite us right at the death, when the Evening Standard looked at the Cereal Café on Brick Lane and conjured up the "cutesters." And then we had health goth. What is health goth? I always thought it was just a Facebook page full of monochrome sportswear and net art, but some journalists believe it's got something to do with Coal Chamber fans sweating their make-up out on crosstrainers. Either way, if that isn't a subculture that's gonna shake society to its foundations, I don't know what is.
In truth, none of these things are really subcultures—they're trends, ways to dress; you know that because you're not an idiot. As such, though you could probably find people who look health goth, normcore, and cutester in any major city, there doesn't seem to be any kind of coherent lifestyle behind the clothes. Where, for example, is the number one normcore bar in London? How does a health goth pay the rent? Where do cutesters go to find sex? Where's the sense of tribalism that led to the M25 raves and Mods getting their heads kicked in on Brighton beach?
I decided to try to flesh out these shallow clothing trends before they fade out and away from us forever. I spent one day living as a health goth, one living as a cutester, and one living normcore, in an attempt to find out if there was any kind of lifestyle beyond the clothes.
Making friends was my first category; you can't have a youth tribe if there's only one of you, after all. You need a gang.
Cutester was my first lifestyle choice. As per the Standard's checklist, I swapped my typical all-black uniform for a cartoon jumper (I figured it should either be that or a onesie, the physical embodiment of the cutester's cloying, defining infantilism) and tried to conjure up the grating optimism necessary for a social life built on "ping-pong cafes" and "emoji tattoos."
Unsurprisingly, not everyone was down with me dressing and acting like a spoilt American toddler. The guys in Hype—a store that has Swag Lord pretensions but just released a clothing range covered in Simpsons characters, i.e. cutester catnip—replied to my boundless enthusiasm with the nonchalance of three Odd Future-loving wank-fanatics whose mom just asked if they're interested in a night of live improv comedy based on a Jane Austen novel.
"Do you like what I'm wearing?" I asked.
"No," came the mass, stony-faced response.
I'd hate them for it if I didn't already hate myself.
Fuck them, though; pretty much everyone else wanted to maintain a conversation with me. I guess it could have been the bubbly personality drawing them in, or the fact I looked like a lost child at a Disney shop. Maybe that was appealing to their sense of social responsibility.
Whatever the reason, I was having a lot more success making friends than I usually do.
Friends like the staff at this entire shop dedicated to selling onesies.
At this point, in this shop, surrounded by $240 baby clothes, the cutester felt less like a media fabrication and more like a damning indictment of my generation. Yes: I had made friends. But they weren't cool friends. And up till the point when crying on the internet about how much you love Niall Horan became a thing that earned you cool points, that's what subcultures were always about.
It immediately became clear that making friends as a health goth would be more difficult. But I guess that's the point? If you spend all your time looking moody, listening to MssingNo and the Haxan Cloak while droning on about "the role the digital space plays in the democratization of art" you have to expect a certain lack of love from the plebs.
The nice barbers I visited seemed confused by my petulance, and offered me some chocolate from the fishbowl to cheer me up.
It didn't work, though; I'd gone full method, like a female Day-Lewis with a Nike+ subscription. You don't have time for celebrations when your life is about sweat and sadness.
Flirting with the second definition of health goth I'd read, I headed to Gymbox, where I expected the staff to welcome me with open arms.
Instead, the receptionist told me they'd never heard of my adopted genre of person and told me I'd have to leave if I wasn't a member. Gymbox had claimed they were open for almost anything. Turns out health goth didn't make the cut.
Sipping a protein shake, I wondered where the average health goth goes to find kindred spirits IRL. Your classic goths are still too hung up on crushed velvet and crows to care about Tumblr, and gyms are probably still full of the same dull-fuck City shitmunchers who can actually afford the membership.
It's a conclusion that might shock you, but maybe health goth just doesn't translate all that well into real life.
Lonelier still was the world of normcore. As trend forecasting company K-Hole wrote in the report that kickstarted the whole "movement," in normcore, "one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging."
While that's the kind of thing that probably sounds good in a trend report, in practice "the indignity of belonging" seemed to entail being so anonymous that I felt like I was slipping off the sides of the Earth.
I tried to strike up a half-assed conversation with people in the street, but weirdly, nobody seemed particularly interested in anything I had to say. The "normcore personality" I had adopted was probably too drab and indifferent; I wondered if people thought me some kind of con artist or international assassin, looking as indistinguishable as possible in order to commit some awful atrocity.
Instead of boring any more people with the normcore-y conversation-starters I'd come up with ("I still can't work out whether Berghaus beats North Face in terms of functionality;" "Have you heard of Seinfeld?") I decided to put pizza in my face, and realized that normcore's problem is in its name. You can't be in a gang with every single person you see; it stops being subculture and just becomes culture.
As I devoured the crust, I was forced to reflect on the sad fact that cutester was the most likeable look I'd tried.
The way a subculture earns its money is vital; it helps to define its members' social class, political leaning and moral code. It also dictates other more important factors, like whether they're getting fucked up on Frosty Jack's or Courvoisier; whether they're getting thrown out of Boujis or Belushi's.
As a cutester, the streets of Shoreditch were paved with opportunity, the world of unskilled shift work my oyster. Acting like a baby and annoying people is one of the few boom industries in London right now, and several clothing shops took my CV. I also had a 15-minute chat with a man running a cyber-goth shop who offered me two weeks' work in return for my hairdresser's number (sorry, Loren).
But I had my eye on the dream job. A job in the cutester coliseum: the Cereal Killer Cafe.
I turned up and, looking around for one of the workwear Jedwards who run the place, realized I fit in perfectly. My outfit looked like it belonged in a display case on the wall. I was Bon Jovi in a Hard Rock Cafe. I had fucking pink lippie and pigtails. I was made for this place.
Soon enough, one of the silver foxes appeared. He gave me his email and told me to get in touch right away. So there you have it: go to the concept cafe that a lot of people seem to hate, dressed up as a person a lot of people seem to hate, and you could well square that hatred and land yourself a job.
But then you could probably go anywhere as a cutester and be offered some kind of work. What kind of manager wouldn't want to employ someone with all the Technicolor spunk of an aspiring CBeebies presenter?
It was confirmed: the life of a full-time cutester would be rich and easy. Find them swigging Bolly in the club and swinging the election for the Tories.
Again, the basic tenets of health gothism made finding a job highly problematic. I dialed down some of the attitude, but did tell all my potential employers that I'd insist on having full autonomy over my choice of outfit were I to gift them my time, bank details, and social security number.
This did not go down well; everywhere I went insisted that I'd have to represent the brand in their respective uniforms if I were to ever be offered a job there. And because I was asking at Pret not Nike, unlike the movement itself, I wasn't in the mood to sell out just yet.
'POD might be up for it,' I thought, reasoning that I'd make a good brand ambassador for their healthy lunch thing. Alas, the clothes were once again an issue; the people behind the counter deemed my sliders a health hazard and stared at me until I left.
Hope finally came in the shape of Elite Café. The friendly lady behind the counter asked what I was like. I told her I was moody with my default health goth resting bitchface. She told me that didn't matter and to ring her up for shifts.
In retrospect, I'm not sure the high street was a suitable working environment for a princess of nylon darkness. But if they can tear themselves away from posting photos of futuristic synthetic limbs on Facebook for long enough, their unique blend of physical fitness and infinite sadness could make health goths of both genders ideal candidates for the high-class escort game.
Staff in every café in East London seem to dress normcore in some form or other, so I thought getting a job would be easy. I was right. Every café I tried gave me a positive return on my pleas.
Wearing a baggy sweatshirt and vacant expression, I probably seemed like a pretty docile creature. The sort of born follower who'd make BLT subs with my head down, return with five minutes of my lunchbreak to spare, and be too scared to ask for time off over reading week. Win-win.
What this tolerance for eating shit said about normcore's political stance or moral code, I had no idea. "Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness," isn't exactly a sentence that screams political partisanship.
Then again, all three of these fashion trends seemed morally blank. The closest anything came to a political statement was the cutester's ability to prosper effortlessly in Boris Johnson's weird new London. Call me old-fashioned but that doesn't seem like the right kind of basis for a youth movement.
One of the most important functions of youth subcultures is the way they pave to the loss of virginity and teenage sex; by narrowing the bang pool down from "everyone else in your school year" to "everyone else in your school year who likes Tool" nervous delta males become swaggering alphas; 6/10 wallflowers become Brazilian Carnival queens. Having an identity beyond anxious, horny teenager gives you confidence, conversation, and common ground. The youth subculture matrix is a glorious Royal Mail sorting office hellbent on delivering urgent supplies to your quivering libido.
As such, it's important that we work out if anyone actually wants to have sex with health goths, normcorers, or—fucking shudder—cutesters.
I used the same Tinder profile but different photos (of each outfit, obviously) to gauge the general reaction from the hounds. If I know Tinder (and I know Tinder), it wasn't going to matter whether I was dressed in slimy gym pants or a fucking Tweety Bird onesie; any swipers within a one-mile radius were going to swipe.
Cutester me probably got the most swipes straight out the gates, which is a little worrying. Ladies: if 18-year-old boys with Louis Vuitton polos and iced gem haircuts are your thing, horrible garish clothes are apparently the way forward.
Health goth and normcore both got an equally warm reception, but I was proved correct: generally, Tinder didn't seem to give a fuck about what I was wearing.
Time for a second opinion: my male friends are alright, so I used them as a better yardstick for how fit I really was. Unhelpfully, my most trusted and cynical male confidant judged them all to be awful—cutester: "annoying," normcore: "looks like prison bait," health goth: "just straight up dickhead who thinks dressing like Sporty Spice is acceptable"—but even he agreed with the rest, who said normcore was the most attractive option.
This made sense. He lives in London, and is therefore desensitized to young women dressing like his pregnant mom in family photos from the 80s.
Most important of all categories, perhaps, was someone who knows about fashion judging me and my appearance. Yes, I may have slurred normcore, health goth, and cutester as nothing more than clothing trends but looking cool is the means by which youth cultures rope in new recruits, grow and endure. For my assessment, I turned to Bertie Brandes, VICE writer and current contributing Features Editor at i-D.
These were her informed rulings:
"Cutester is so disgusting on so many levels. It's the go-to aesthetic for a self-loathing generation; VEVO filtered through Jeremy Scott and flooding into Primark quicker than you can say 'Squidward onesie.' Are those seriously bunches she's got in her hair? Honestly, the last time it was acceptable for any of us to wear a Mickey Mouse T-shirt was when we were trying to fuck the Cobrasnake for a new profile picture six years ago. Enough."
"Sorry, trend reporters, but though you think health goth was conceived this year, it's clearly been alive and well since So Solid Crew's Kaish wore white contact lenses on Top of the Pops. While it was cemented as a mainstream trend by Alexander Wang for H&M's asymmetric laser-cut travesty of a collection over summer, people with no personality have been wearing ribbed socks and Nike crop-tops to complement their dip-dyes for absolutely ages. Though this sportswear subculture might not be as sinister as the rich guys you meet on Tinder who wear Air Max with no socks, it still strikes me as a clusterfuck of symbols reserved largely for the sort of people so desperately in need of an identity they've got a tattoo of their own name. Not pictured: the obligatory septum piercing."
"The problem with normcore is it normally goes one of two ways: either you're so 'core in your stonewashed flares and ancient Stan Smiths that Refinery29 are sniffing around for an OOTD [Outfit of the Day], or you just shopped yourself silly on the ASOS basics vertical and you're less blasé, more just blah. Personally, I think normcore should be reserved for people with their natural hair color and an endearing number of pimples (exactly one) but you know what? Those jeans are truly hideous, so kudos for the effort."
My critique from Bertie confirmed what I'd suspected: cutester is straight-up gross, health goth is just the Spice Girls in an oil slick, and normcore is for vanilla humanities students who want to look like extras in a Woody Allen movie.
But there's more to it than that. Interestingly, each of these trends seeks out comfort—both physical and emotional—in a city that is an increasingly hostile and confusing place for young people to live in. All the trends prize being cosy and comfy over any other criteria, be that health goths dressed in their slippers, normcorers dressed like their moms, or cutesters dressed in their childhoods.
Strutting around as a health goth gives you the camouflage of fitness. What is the camouflage of fitness? It is the reason no one takes the piss out of joggers in the street even though they look fucking stupid. These days, it seems there's some kind of unwritten rule that you can't knock an athlete.
Normcore is pure nostalgia; it's the sartorial equivalent of a family video on VHS. And just as the PC Music crew lift you from London concrete and drop you in a world made out of Haribo and candy floss, the whole cutester thing is a form of escape, a bunch of 20-somethings buying Hello Kitty phone cases and trying with all their might to dive back into the womb.
Sadly, none of them have any hope of becoming real subcultures; they are all too reliant on the internet and just don't translate IRL. Personally, I hold out hope for 2015, but there are those who argue that subcultures as we knew them died the day broadband started beaming every nascent youth movement into connected households the world over.
So for now until the Fall of Technology, I guess we'll have to make do with whatever op-ed writers and trend forecasters come up with. To 2015: the year of the Islamopunk and the Turbo Mod.
Follow Hannah on Twitter.