The New York Times, of the “find three people and call it a trend” approach to style journalism, has up today a lengthy meditation about “normcore”: does it really exist, or is it simply a big in-joke? Is it a trend, or is it, in Alex Williams’s words, a “hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum”?
A little backstory: the word “normcore” was apparently invented by a firm of brand consultants, who wrote up a description of the so-called trend in a report as part of a London-based art project. In this articulation, normcore was supposed to be a “sociological attitude” rather than a “fashion trend”: in other words, normcore dosen’t signal a specific style so much as a stance, a way of participating in the mainstream rather than deliberately seeking subculture expertise and identification. One journalist cited in the article dismisses the idea that normcore could be a trend, because the whole point of normcore is that you dress to fit in, not to stand out: you wear a trucker hat to a NASCAR race and JINCOs to a rave.
Setting aside the irony of the New York Times conducting an ontological investigation into the nature of trends, the article misses a key assumption of fashion theory: there’s no such thing as outside fashion. “Normal” clothes don’t exist in some a priori mall that the Liz Lemons of the world inhabit and that hipsters can access when artisanal pickles become too mainstream. There’s no difference between “sociological attitudes” and “fashion trends”; ignoring trends is a trend.
About 180 years ago, Catherine Gore’s 1841 novel Cecil took a nostalgic-slash-horrified retrospective view of the Regency of 40 years earlier, in the same way that we look back at the loose morals and unrestrained public hair of the 1970s. At one point early on, when Gore is still setting up the thematic interests of her three-volume novel, the fashionable Lady Harriet educates Cecil, a young “puppy” who keeps giving her the elaborate compliments that would have been popular forty decades before the Regency, in the up-to-date fashions of the times. As Lady Harriet explains, Cecil’s stiff compliments and stiffer cravat are really not the thing: “We are all pretending to be natural with all our might, till the affectation of nature has become as natural as any other affection” (74).
Hot off a busy decade of writing fashionable novels, Gore understood perfectly well that being “natural” is just another trend. See, being out of fashion isn’t the same as being outside of fashion. You might be out of fashion, but you’re never out of the fashion system; the whole system survives by continually bring in what was formerly out. Normcore is nothing more than Regency naturecore rebranded, the very definition of a trend.