Finding myself on the other side of the professor’s desk for the first time in my life, I realized immediately, as I looked at a regiment of Millennials with the harsh white light of their iThings reflecting off of their whitened teeth, that in fact, I have become old. Well, older at least. All of us would like to think that, upon our triumphant return to the old college stomping grounds, that in fact, one can be the BMOC again. Alas, having been born in the Carter era, this is a lie. To use the parlance of poker, there are four or five “tells” that give away decrepitude—pudginess and crow’s feet, graying and/or thinning pompadours, and attire.
Attire is perhaps the controllable variable, but to what end? My intention is not to blend in with the student body, but to stand before it. What was the grunge of the 1990’s became the 2000’s emo and hipsters of today. And throughout those trendy times, there has been a persistent American uniform, usually adopted about the time one realizes they are too grey, balding or weighty for The Gap or Abercrombie, or wherever the tweens shop anymore. Gone is the conspicuous consumption, the brandishing of designers and their logos.
I didn’t always embrace the idea of a brand-less, statement-less way to engage fashion. In fact, I was runner up for my graduating high school class’s superlative for “best dressed,” having to settle for “Most likely to be President.” In fact, I did not realize how far I had in fact fallen from the runway and catwalks until my sister’s boyfriend, upon a recent visit, remarked that I was “normcore.” And of course, not speaking a word of Millennialese, I consult Wikipedia first:
“Normcore is a unisex fashion trend characterized by unpretentious, average-looking clothing. “Normcore” is a portmanteau of the words “normal” and “hardcore”. The word first appeared in webcomic Templar, Arizona, and was later was employed by K-Hole, a trend forecasting group, in an October 2013 report called “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom”
The arbiters of the popular language christened this look, this lifestyle, as “Normcore.” The portmanteau of 2014 borrows of course from the words “normal” and a separate slang “hardcore” to describe a certain ardor for the ardorless. It is like a koan. And a runner up for the O.E.D’s neologism of the year, normcore was reviled by year’s end by the chattering classes; a witty meme that had burnt so brightly in the social media sphere to expire before its zenith. By the time people like your author use the word, it is already out of style. But that is what happens when the trendsetters invent a word—it is no longer theirs. The culture will steal one’s darlings, and put them to its own use.
Thus, as it is now commonly understood, the “normcore” aesthetic is really just polo shirts and tee shirts, khakis and jeans from what I can tell. The devotees are unadorned, with no attempt to draw attention to oneself. It’s ball caps, sans logo. It’s striped regimental ties. It’s the Land’s End catalog, every last page of it. In fact, I’d imagine that most people who reach for this “fashion” are not doing it consciously, or rather, conspicuously. It is an understated consumerism.
But the truth is, this silly word was meant as a joke, an east coast irony, as tweens mock the timeless quality of simply not standing out in attire. It is Zen, a non-trendy trend. The absence of trend. Yet out here in the Midwestern trenches, what separates the Duck Dynastics from the college bubble is a buffer zone of normality—where normcore flourishes.
At some point, there are diminishing returns in the chase of high fashion, the fleeting feeling in clothing that is not designed to survive the season, the peacocking required to win the affections of another, the poor ROI when one tries to sell last season’s Michael Kors to Plato’s Closet. Yet there is a season for that, the hedonistic bacchanal of their twenties. It makes no sense for the single guy to embrace Land’s End Outfitters in their twenties.
There may be other, more nefarious reasons that normcore has evolved de facto, if not by a name. A recent article from the Wharton School suggests that minorities, immigrants and nouveau riche tend to grasp at the status symbols and labels to project success in a consumerist economy. But this of course ignores a lot of facts about who is doing the buying of the Brooks Brothers and the Jimmy Choos. It is youth, more than race, in this author’s opinion, that eschews the normcore asthetic.
Some of the world’s greatest innovators and big personalities embrace a “normcore” mantra, to save the big decisions for well, big decisions. Avatars of the normcore look include Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK, and even Bill O’Reilly. A real panoply. The late Steve Jobs is a prophet of normcore, having ordered dozens of custom mock black turtlenecks as his daily uniform. Back in my performing days, the monkish Christoph Eschenbach of the National Symphony Orchestra would lead us in nothing but mandarin collar dress shirts and dark slacks. Even the great Zuckerberg limits his dress to grey tee shirts. All of the above branded themselves without wearing a label. And even President Obama is on the record on pairing down his suits to grey and navy (and the occasional tan). In a 2012 profile in Vanity Fair, the president remarked:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
The reduction of complexity seems to be the “core” of normcore—the need to simplify in an increasingly cacophonous world. There is Buddhist-like quality to normcore. Like the Buddha remarked, upon giving up his possessions, “To want is to suffer.” This is a particularly hard path to follow in the West, but it seems to reduce complexity, to allow focus on the more important things.
My path to normcore-mality (?) (Why not, made up words should have cognates), began with the simple idea that I did not want to wear college-branded apparel of schools that I had not attended. It seemed the act of a poseur to don a Harvard sweatshirt just because I have been there as a tourist, conventioneer and online course addict. From there, the downward spiral into normality began. I found that classic British regimental ties made more sense than the latest seasonal color. I could mix and match without much thought–all the more essential when toddlers manage to consume those moments once reserved for pairing ties with pocket squares and tie clips. I also found that indestructible Birkenstocks outlasted any pair of trendy dress shoes. I found that khaki, striped oxford shirts and blazers never, ever change and never ever go out of style. I then discovered the benefit of this simplicity, the ability to move my money into other things, like experiences and learning. And family.
But maybe the normcore aesthetic isn’t about simplicity at all. Maybe it is a quiet resignation; the first deference we give to the next generation of whippersnappers who now inhabit “the twenties.” It is like a former craven boss of mine said to me about drinking habits. As I quaffed my beer, he ordered a Scotch, neat.
“No beer?” I ask.
“I used to drink beer, but then I grew up.”
I hadn’t the life experience yet to
suffer appreciate Scotch then. Or normcore. I do now.
And so, unbranded v-neck sweater and all, I stood before my class the first day of the semester, confronting the horde of fashion before me. The only distractions would come from their peers, not a dandified professor before them. Those students are staring into their future, et in Arcadia ego, a normal, normcore future. But of course, their kids will call it something else.
Photo Credit: Huffington Post. Larry David. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/12/larry-david-curb-your-enthusiasm_n_895714.html