Normcore Revisited

Substance triumphs over surface

I received a lot of pings from friends last week: mostly because Balenciaga’s new foray into haute couture had re-entered normcore into the fashion lexicon. See: Vogue calling the collection “normcore glamour”

Inevitably, whenever normcore enters a media cycle, there is a parallel discussion of what the word means. Its haphazard emergence—somewhere between the original K-HOLE trend report and New York Magazine’s shall we say creative interpretation of our text—results in speculation like Natasha Stagg’s recent Spike Art Magazine column:

The semiotic square that introduced the term normcore sold as an NFT for 3.5 Ethereum in April. Meaning, loosely, that the concept of normcore has been bought. And yet there is a “multiplayer networking plugin for Unity” called Normcore, made by a VR platform called Normal, and the word itself has been subsumed by a fashion ideology, translated by Michael Kors to NormKors, which to me looks more like the opposite corner of the square, acting basic, defined (in K-HOLE’s 2013 Youth Mode report) as “being returned to your boring suburban roots, being turned back into a pumpkin, exposed as unexceptional… confirming [your] status by showing how disposable the trappings of uniqueness are,” while normcore is “all about adaptability, not exclusivity.” There could never be a normcore style, in the original sense: it is, by definition, the absence of conviction in personal expression.

Nastasha isn’t wrong about any of these things. The irony though is that in our internal discussions before publishing the report, we went back and forth on which quadrant should be called normcore. Our ultimate decision, to call evading difference, acting basic came from our own recognition that this was ultimately a reactionary fashion trend. Who would want to waste a yummy word like normcore on that?

Our utopian vision of normcore—imagining that fashion could be a tool to if not obliterate difference, at least sand down the divisions between us—crashed into the rocky shoals of cultural appropriation and identity politics. (Canonically, the year we published our report YOUTH MODE (2013) was the year Occupy Wall Street became class reductionism.)

Ultimately, debating canon normcore feels niche to me, despite the media attention it garnered (and continues to). If you ask a stranger on the street what the word means, presuming they have heard of it, their definition will more or less follow the Oxford Dictionary:

NORMCORE

noun /ˈnɔːmkɔː(r)/ 

  1. ​a style of dressing in clothes such as jeans, white T-shirts and trainers, chosen deliberately for being plain and boring and not drawing people's attention

    • Normcore is a conscious attempt to dress as plainly as possible in everyday, casual, indistinguishable clothing.

    • Are you confused by the normcore trend?

Truth is ambiguous—and in the 2010’s it bent toward virality. Trend forecasters aren’t always cynical, but reality often is.


What’s more interesting than debating terminology, is what’s going on in the Balenciaga haute couture collection. The appeal of normcore (whichever definition you please) was that it staked out space for those disinterested in the dominant cultural turn of the last decade: logomania. In an era defined by the rise of social media and the personal brand, there was no more obvious way to lean in than to plaster yourself Gucci belts and Balenciaga repeats and Off-White exes.

IT WAS A DECADE THAT DECLARED SURFACE HAD SUPERSEDED SUBSTANCE

In Rachel Tashjian’s coverage for GQ, she writes the following:

You might say, ultimately, it was anti-social media fashion, a prioritization of personal taste over objects meant to appeal to the masses. Last week, the brand wiped clean its Instagram account, which had previously stood for a sloppy, uninspirational way of being online—a yawn in the face of performative polish that itself became a performance. Speaking about his most recent ready-to-wear collection, back in June, Gvasalia told Vogue, “I think social media is boring, and dangerously addictive for some, as well as super manipulative. We need to find new ways of using it that is less harmful for society. The freedom that it ‘suggested’ originally is now governed by algorithms and commercial interests.” The furthest you can get from algorithmic fashion, from commercial interests, is couture—a garment that is made specifically for the wearer, and a pursuit that usually costs a fashion house more than it earns. (Balenciaga’s CEO told WWD they hope to break even.)

What Tashjian refers to as “trompe l'oeil materiality” (specifically the micro-bladed leather bathrobes that read to a camera as terry cloth) is a rejection of the surface over substance dynamic social media inspired. It reminded me of the recent Kyle Chayka piece for The New Yorker detailing the disappointment of buying crap on Instagram:

I don’t own any Great Jones pots, but I do have bath towels from a popular D.T.C. brand, which I finally bought after repeatedly being served their ads on Instagram. The company’s logo is curvilinear and all-caps; its towels are photographed held by disembodied hands against hazy monochrome backgrounds. The Web site recounts a story about “product functionality” and “the most advanced textile mill in the world.” The towels are offered in unusual colors such as ochre, denim, and oatmeal, and they arrive in transparent packaging that emphasizes their visual impact. Yet none of the above makes them any better. Thin, drab, and slouching in the bathroom like sad ghosts, my D.T.C. towels make me long for the plush cotton of a less aestheticized, more boring brand like L. L. Bean, which also happen to cost half as much.

I’ve never bought anything on Instagram. (See my piece Instagram is Dead for tips on how to defeat the platform’s persuasive design.) But the story is a common one. Maybe it took COVID to demonstrate to everyone that while the Internet is very much a real part of everyday life, most digital products are poor substitutes for their IRL competitors. The “Let them eat selfies!” ethos left consumers data-rich and experience-poor.

I don’t know if I would call luxury’s return to craft, materiality, and substance normcore. It’s tied to a bigger shift toward secrecy, exclusivity, physicality, and intimacy. This seems less to do with the original normcore semiotic anxiety of “being seen” or “being scene”—and more to do with a general exhaustion with visuality as the primary way of interacting with the world.

Right now I’m watching an osprey bring a water snake to her hatchlings. I hear birdsong in the brush. Somewhere overhead, playful squirrels rustle in the leaves. Online, there is nothing like it.

DATA MAY BE PERMANENT, BUT LIFE IS FLEETING