Friday, July 3, 2015

The Revolution Will Probably Wear Mom Jeans

Not long ago, a curious fashion trend swept through New York City’s hipster preserves, from Bushwick to the Lower East Side. Once, well-heeled twentysomethings had roamed these streets in plaid button-downs and floral playsuits. Now, the reign of the aspiring lumberjacks and their mawkish mates was coming to an end. Windbreakers, baseball caps, and polar fleece appeared among the flannel. Cargo shorts and khakis were verboten no longer. Denim went from dark-rinse to light. Sandals were worn, and sometimes with socks. It was a blast of carefully modulated blandness—one that delighted some fashion types, appalled others, and ignited the critical passions of lifestyle journalists everywhere.

They called it Normcore. Across our Fashion Nation, style sections turned out lengthy pieces exploring this exotic lurch into the quotidian, and trend watchers plumbed every possible meaning in the cool kids’ new fondness for dressing like middle-aged suburbanites. Were hipsters sacrificing their coolness in a brave act of self-renunciation? Was this an object lesson in the futility of ritually chasing down, and then repudiating, the coolness of the passing moment? Or were middle-aged dorks themselves mysteriously cool all of a sudden? Was Normcore just an elaborate prank designed to prove that style writers can be fooled into believing almost anything is trendy? (...)

The Revolt of the Mass Indie Überelite

The adventure began in 2013, and picked up steam early last year with Fiona Duncan’s “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion,” a blowout exploration of the anti-individualist Normcore creed for New York magazine. Duncan remembered feeling the first tremors of the revolution:
Sometime last summer I realized that, from behind, I could no longer tell if my fellow Soho pedestrians were art kids or middle-aged, middle-American tourists. Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfortable sneakers, both types looked like they might’ve just stepped off an R-train after shopping in Times Square. When I texted my friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on the latest urban camouflage, I got an immediate reply: “lol normcore.”
Brad, however eloquent and charming, did not coin the term himself. He got it from K-HOLE, a group of trend forecasters. To judge by K-HOLE’s name alone—a slang term for the woozy aftereffects of the animal tranquilizer and recreational drug ketamine—the group was more than happy to claim Normcore as its own licensed playground. As company principals patiently explained to the New York Times, their appropriation of the name of a toxic drug hangover was itself a sly commentary on the cultural logic of the corporate world’s frenetic cooptation of young people’s edgy habits. At a London art gallery in October 2013, in a paper titled “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom,” team K-HOLE proposed the Twitter hashtag #Normcore as a rejoinder to such cooptation:
If the rule is Think Different, being seen as normal is the scariest thing. (It means being returned to your boring suburban roots, being turned back into a pumpkin, exposed as unexceptional.) Which paradoxically makes normalcy ripe for the Mass Indie überelites to adopt as their own, confirming their status by showing how disposable the trappings of uniqueness are.
Jargon aside, the report had a point: lately “Mass Indie überelites”—a group more commonly known as hipsters—have been finding it increasingly difficult to express their individuality, the very thing that confers hipster cred.

Part of the problem derives from the hipster’s ubiquity. For the past several years, hipsterism has been an idée fixe in the popular press—coy cultural shorthand in the overlapping worlds of fashion, music, art, and literature for a kind of rebellion that doesn’t quite come off on its own steam. Forward-thinking middle-class youngsters used to strike fear in the hearts of the squares by flouting social norms—at least nominally, until they grew up and settled into their own appointed professional, middle-class destinies. Now, however, the hipster is a benign and well-worn figure of fun: a lumpenbourgeois urbanite perpetually in search of ways to display her difference from the masses. (...)

Food for Thought

Things get even more complicated when you consider the Middle American booboisie on whom Normcore sets its sights. Even as Normcore jeers at neutral, fashion-backward attire, it also manages to exalt the clueless exurbanite by turning her into a fetish object: the Emma Bovary of the strip mall. It’s not clear just how and why hipsters came to fixate on the People of Walmart, but it’s not a passing fancy; one after another, hipsters are elevating dreary things to the height of fashion.

Think of the rise of kale. The once-humble vegetable has ascended to such dizzying heights that Beyoncé wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with “KALE” in one of her recent videos.

See also pizza, a closer edible analogue to Normcore. A friend with ties to the advertising industry informed me of pizza’s edginess sometime last year, directing me to a Tumblr called Slice Guyz that collects pictures of pizza-themed graffiti and the like. Former child star and current hipster Macaulay Culkin started a joke band called the Pizza Underground; it performs selections from the Velvet Underground catalogue repurposed with pizza-themed lyrics. In September, New York magazine—the same oracle that announced the rise of Normcore—anointed pizza as the “chicest new trend.” As incontrovertible evidence that the trend was indeed taking hold, the magazine’s fashion brain trust commissioned layouts of Katy Perry and Beyoncé (now the avatar of food-themed chicness, it would seem) in pizza-print outfits.

To take something recognizably bad, whether pizza or bulky fleece sweatshirts, and try to pass it off as avant-garde self-expression is an incredibly defeatist gesture, one both aware of and happy with its futility. Ceci n’est pas intéressant.

Still, pizza, like denim, is accessible to all Americans and crafted with wildly different levels of competence, self-awareness, and artisanal intent. Papa John’s or Little Caesars may deliver glorified tomato-paste-on-cardboard alongside tubs of dipping butter to a nation of indifferent proles. But if you ask New York’s infinitely more with-it pizza correspondents, they’ll tell you, with numbing precision, that pizza can be “toppings-forward” and “avant-garde.” This range makes pizza the perfect hipster quarry: sometimes mundane, sometimes aspirational, and above all, exotic. (...)

Before you can say “plain Hanes tee,” this longing can shade again into contempt. When urban hipsters fetishize the déclassé and the mundane, they rely on their understanding of middle America as a colony, one filled with happy proles to be mined for fashion inspiration. This is as true for hipsters as it is for Glenn Beck, whose bone-deep cynicism about the heartland is simply an amplified version of the same infatuated disdain cultivated by a deliberately dowdy Brooklynite. How else can one account for the steady migration of Normcore into the very corporate world that calls the shots on what we buy and how—a world in which web designers, programmers, stylists, advertising executives, and other masters of the knowledge economy now dress up like call-center drones headed to the Dollar Store?

by Eugienia Williamson, The Baffler |  Read more:
Image: Hollie Chastain