Remember normcore? That bland, affect-less trend everyone half-sincerely understood to offer something of a reaction to the ubiquity of hyper-branded consumer culture. With everyone seeking to be heard amongst the noise, normcore ostensibly offered a space of nihilistic utopia, one built on a negation of that noise to foster a rather hopeful return to a truer, more authentic ethos of fashion.
So what happened? For a trend that promised so much, you’d generally think people would’ve eaten that shit up ad nauseum. And for the most part, certain circles of upper-crust Brooklyn and Wicker Park (*gag*) certainly rode the trend’s iconic minimalism into the ground; but for something that ostensibly encouraged a final gesture at fashion democracy, normcore only ever seemed to uphold class signifiers with even more strength, recreating the insidious gaze of industry elitism on its own scale, in its own twisted ways.
Generally understood to have been conceived by the “trend forecasters” at K-HOLE in late 2013, normcore was a fashion statement, a declaration, a manifesto in reaction to the highbrow. Anti-aspirational, normcore was a shrug to the industry, a recognition that everything “cool” of youth culture had already been fully monetized as it spoke to a sincere embrace of the mundane. If you looked at the palate of any designer circa 2010 (as most likely these forecasters probably did), you’d notice a vast amount of simplicity—from a sparse palate of greys and blacks, to clean, unassuming fits, fully streamlined of surplus and reduced to core, comfy essentials—a utilitarian uniform best designed to showcase work on other bodies, not one’s own.
Normcore was the rise of the blank canvas, a negative space void of the hyper-branded logos and corporate identities that fill so much of our contemporary existence—a final, coming-of-age recognition of one’s own complicity in the industry machine. Burnt out on accelerationist trend-hopping and seeking a bit of relief from the breakneck speed of mass consumerism (as well as the mass surveillance of Internet street style and the ceaseless gaze of the web), normcore aspired to be ordinary, effectively actualizing (however intentionally) the “effortless cool” of the classical Hollywood tradition in the process.
Part of our widespread contention with the trend was that beneath its ever-charming veneer, it always felt like normcore was contributing to politics of a new ethos of fashion, one built on a sinister, more internalized understanding of the class warfare and identity crisis that fashion itself had been trying to suppress for years. With rags-to-riches rappers using fashion as a celebration of capital, the world saw the hyper-branded products of labels like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Burberry fall out of favor as brands struggled to reclaim the identities they once clung to. Where Chief Keef heavily reps his True Religion and early Kanye lyrics saw shoutouts to Louis V, normcore effectively equalized everyone, disregarding the intentionality of the #flex purchase as we all became the same under our own shapeless monochrome.
This mirrors a larger trend over the last few decades where we’ve clearly seen a shift in the sort of bodies we associate with affluence. Where once the price of a man’s suit fairly transparently dictated his income, the rise of the ‘60s “fashion anarchy” conflated signifiers of wealth with the ambiguity of casualwear, forever blending the “haves” with the “have-nots,” freeing all from the condescending gaze of the rich. Think Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck or Jim Morrison’s Levis and leather jackets; populist icons clearly affirming modes of casual, yet affluent Americana as something here to stay, not just another fad.
Yet as the decades moved on, the world soon saw other signifiers arise with wealth to again return some sense of class stratification to the ubiquity of casualwear. The ‘70s and ‘80s soon saw the rise of aerobics, health foods and the home gym, in the process finally finding a way to move beyond the limitations of the casualwear revolution: The Perfectible Body. As Kenneth Dutton notes in his work The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Physical Development:
“The combination of an affluent consumer society and the Protestant work ethic has been reflected in activities [i.e. working out] which paradoxically combine disciplined asceticism on the one hand and narcissistic hedonism on the other.”
Beyond a casualwear revolution where clothes no longer offered class connotation, the sculpted gym body was able to reveal new signifiers of privilege and affluence beyond the limitations of our ubiquitous casualwear. For the first time in history, it became understood that to have a built body, whether through lifting weights or dieting, was to be privileged. To have the time and access to the gym equipment and health foods necessary to maintain such routines required a substantial amount of disposable income, a signifier of at least some stature in a culture formerly directed by material goods.
With the rise of normcore’s populist aspirations, the perfectible body was still always held as supreme. Without the cultural signifiers of hyper-branded material goods, we again saw—on a micro, almost instantaneous scale—the rise of the privileged, skinny, largely white body heralded as a signifier of this populism. Luxury brands like Acne and Alexander Wang cannibalized the ethos of the movement, only ever offering campaigns featuring the privileged, perfected bodies that fashion campaigns are generally known for, yet producing products that still sought to aesthetically tap into that ethos of normcore democracy.
Put simply, normcore’s anti-cool became the new cool—every ounce as fickle and commodified as the industry it sought to distance itself from. Again, the industry did what it always does and found another way to sell an anti-consumerist image to the consumer; the anti-trend again became the trend. Late capitalism, racing onward towards an ever-quickening commodification process thanks to the web, soon found a way to swallow up that little space left outside the hyper-accelerated consumer noise.