'Normcore,' Where Being Off-Message Is On-Trend

Sameness is cool. Anti-style is the new fashion. Ragnar Schmuck/Getty

Any old trainers, a grey t-shirt, zip-up fleece. Just stuff. Shirts, chinos, jumpers – even if they come from Gap. Nondescript, loosish (but not baggy) blue jeans, deck shoes.

If you wear any of these, then chances are you’re ‘normcore’, and that, peculiarly enough, makes you both a fashion icon de nos jours and probably not remotely interested in fashion.

Normcore has been called the internet meme of 2014. The flag was first raised by a New York trend-forecasting agency called K-Hole, which produced a report containing the madly catchy concept of normcore – a vanilla anti-style.

“Normcore finds liberation in being nothing special, and realises that adaptability leads to belonging,” announced K-Hole. It went on to describe it as post-aspirational; the idea of conformity taking precedence over an assertion of individuality.

Then, a month ago, New York Magazine ran a piece which established normcore as a fashion trend, calling it “fashion for those who know they’re one in seven billion.”

The idea: that the very latest trend is to be trendless. That cool, in fashion, is not caring and trying even less; wearing clothes for comfort and belonging, rather than style. Blank slate dressing. The joy of the ordinary.

To say normcore has hit a nerve would be to understate the whole phenomenon (very normcore). Alain de Botton, the British writer and philosopher, thinks it makes eminent sense and shows we’ve hit upon the ideal, in the Platonic sense, of how to dress.

“Normcore is the search for the ideal,” he says. “The perfect t-shirt, like the perfect pencil or table, doesn’t need to be constantly updated because it has latched on to the essence of what it’s trying to do. Humans like one-off ideals: one god, one partner . . . we are quite monotheistic. That urge sometimes washes over into clothes: one type of t-shirt. The ultimate example of this is the uniform. The better the design, the less it needs to change.”

Paradoxically – given that it relies on fast turnover – fashion is falling in love with the idea, too. Normcore was the talk of February and March’s fashion weeks in New York, Paris, Milan and London. Patagonia fleeces made it on to Marc Jacobs’s runway and British model Edie Campbell wears Celine “furkenstocks” – a furry reinterpretation of the Birkenstock sandal – in a recent issue of French Vogue. Functionable North Face and New Balance are the talk of the town. Fashion has turned against itself.

So, are people tired of high fashion brands or have they realised that those who don’t wear them might be more interesting than those who do? “Fashion makes you look like a mindless sheep,” is how one style editor puts it.

US Vogue’s contributing editor, Plum Sykes, says: “Wearing ‘fashion’ all the time gets too much – and it demands too much attention.”

Global politics isn’t immune either, with the gossip website Gawker asking: “Is president Obama too normcore to defeat Putin?Buzzfeed ran a picture of Obama in a white t-shirt and jeans, anonymous black jacket, white socks and white trainers, with the caption, “Is this a style icon?”

Back in England, David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, Prince William’s cousin Zara Phillips, and both the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge can all be identified as normcore stalwarts. The Duchess of Cambridge? Yes, because although she might wear labels such as Alexander McQueen, she is primarily a functional dresser rather than a fashion victim. She is one of those who dresses to fit her surroundings, rather than letting her clothes define her.

The identification of normcore brings into focus the absurdity of dressing in fast-moving ‘high fashion’ – head to foot blingy labels in the manner of footballers’ wives or oligarchs’ girlfriends. Normcore holds up a mirror to high fashion and what it reflects is not pretty: bizarre, vain and ostentatious, rather than desirable.

Normcore taps into all sentient people’s suspicion that those who care about clothes too much may not have that much else going on. Why would anyone want to be judged by their hat, or shoes, or shoulder pads, if they could avoid it? Where is the human dignity in squeezing into Spanx, or tottering in uncomfortable Louboutins, or clutching Chanel or Louis Vuitton handbags in the hope that people will think more of you? Why not just wear a sign saying “I am dull and insecure, but look what I can afford . . . ”

Euro-normcore differs from the US version. Baseball caps and crisply ironed white t-shirts are standard issue in America but stand out here, though grey marl and fleeces are universal normcore. Whatever its form, there is tangible relief in fashion circles; as if this one word carries all the meaning of, “But the emperor has no clothes!”

Richard Nicoll, a London-based designer and newly-appointed creative director at the casualwear chain Jack Will, sings its praises. “Normcore says, ‘I have soul and intelligence. I’m unique and I don’t need to shout about it.’”

Pip Howeson, another London-based designer, agrees. “I think people have become exhausted. There is something refreshing about not shouting what tribe you belong to – somewhat ironically creating a tribe in itself. The sort of Steve-Jobs-style that says ‘there’s more to me than clothes, I have more important things on my mind.’ The wearer would rather be spoken to before being judged,” she says.

The Italian-born fashion editor, Gianluca Longo, helped London’s V&A Museum organise its current exhibition ‘The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014’, but even he is smitten. “I love normcore and hope it’s going to become more popular. I am so exhausted by seeing fashionistas turning up at fashion shows in the most ridiculous outfits in order to be papped by some random street photographer. In fashion, the real normcore practitioners are the models. When they leave a show venue for the next one, they all look so low-key in their favourite black jeans, slouchy t-shirts and a blazer but they are still the best looking people there.”

Plum Sykes points out that many senior fashion people dress normcore most of the time. “Women love flamboyant, individual, colourful fashion. But sometimes it’s too much effort. Most working women have a uniform that is not dissimilar to normcore – black trousers, black top, plain flat shoes. If they are well-cut, these simple clothes can look fabulous as well as being easy to wear. I wouldn’t call it a trend so much as taking a break from high fashion. Grace Coddington, fashion director of American Vogue, never wears anything but plain, simple black and white clothes to work.”

Is normcore so big that it can only fail?

Sykes thinks it has a natural shelf life because, “any woman who’s spent too long in her day-to-day uniform starts yearning for a pretty dress after a while.” And de Botton warns: “The irony and danger of normcore is that something committed to anti-fashion is itself prone to being hyped as fashionable – and therefore immediately acquires a sell-by date.”

As it has already spawned its own subculture – avant-normcore (avant-garde meets normcore); hardcore normcore (too normcore to normcare) and anti-normcore (those who hate it) – we must be in danger of après normcore already. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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