Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Do these khakis make me look... meh?

Normcore fashion celebrates the non-style of middle America, but Joe Lunchpail can't possibly pull it off, dah-ling

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Are you normcore?

Normcore is a fashion trend characterized by blandness. Normcore is anonymous. Normcore is uncool. Normcore is comfortable. Its MO is one of blending in, not standing out.

The normcore wardrobe is built on utilitarian staples. The unisex uniform consists of cargo pants, boxy sweatshirts, white three-pack Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, turtlenecks, baseball caps, white sneakers, fleece zip-ups, Birkenstocks. The foundation of normcore is denim -- especially jeans of the mom or dad variety. (Gap even tweeted "we've been carrying your #normcore staples since 1969.")

Many people are citing Jerry Seinfeld's personal non-style as a normcore touchstone, although I, too, was an early adopter. I was normcore before it was a thing. Throughout elementary school in the '90s, I, too, trended toward mom jeans, cat T-shirts from Northern Reflections and baggy Cotton Ginny sweatshirts -- all worn non-ironically, of course, because I was eight. My personal style could best be described as "50-something administrative assistant on casual Friday."

Before it was feted with a feature in New York Magazine heralding it as the Next Big Thing in fashion, the term "normcore" was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of trend-forecasters, in a report entitled "Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom."

There's something wonderfully democratic about the premise of normcore as its creators envisioned it. To them, normcore is less an (anti-)fashion statement and more of a state of mind, a response to the exhaustive effort so many of us put into our sartorial choices to prove we're special snowflakes. By freeing yourself from the dual pressures of being different and staying current -- all but impossible in the Internet age -- K-Hole argues that one is just free to like what they like, without pretense. "Normcore finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging."

(Of course, there are many people who think Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom is a brilliant send-up of trend reporting and that normcore is actually just a massive, media-baiting in-joke. And, come to think of it, for a movement ostensibly about mom jeans, it sure has spawned an awful lot of think-pieces...)

So does that mean your dad's fashion decisions are suddenly au courant? Yes, but also no. When stripped of sociological context and taken strictly as a fashion trend, there's something about normcore that leaves a bad taste.

"Consider, for example, the fact that we're hearing about normcore at all," writes culture critic Thomas Frank in Salon. "It is not news to observe that average people wear clothes from JCPenney; it only becomes a news story, beguiling the taste-gurus of the entire world, when special people are moved to wear clothes from JCPenney -- enlightened people, adventuresome people, people with the right cheekbones and the correct socioeconomic status."

Indeed, as Elle writer Lauren Sherman pointed out, there's also a big difference between "expertly styled, proportion-conscious fashion normcore and legitimate strip mall-and-minivan normcore."

In other words, when beautiful people wear normcore clothing, it's a trend-piece. When regular people wear it, it's either a non-event -- or even something to be mocked. While it seems that way on the outset, normcore is not giving us permission to become a Sweatpant Nation of people who don't care about clothes. Like most other fashion trends, normcore still requires you to be the "right" kind of person to be able to "pull it off."

At its heart, normcore is nothing more than a form of slumming. You see, erudite Manhattan-dwelling fashion industry types and off-duty models -- those enviable bastions of effortless street-chic -- don't actually want to live like a middle-class, white-bread, suburban person with a mini-mall haircut and mainstream tastes from East Jesus Nowhere -- or, gasp!, be mistaken for one. And they know they never will be because their coolness/youth/beauty/intelligence/wealth cannot be compromised by even the most ill-fitting of stonewash jeans.

"A beautiful stylist in mom jeans and sneakers does not look the same as a mom in the Midwest," Sherman's editor at Elle sagely pointed out to her. (Pssst: "Mom in the Midwest" is fashionspeak for "dowdy.")

As Jezebel's Lindy West wrote in her essay on normcore, "there's something inherently distasteful and tone-deaf in rhapsodizing about how wearing ordinary, cheap clothes -- the kind of clothes worn by people who are often financially excluded from wearing anything else -- is some grand, noble statement "about absolving oneself from fashion, 'lest it mark you as a mindless sheep.' Oh, the clothes of the simple people -- they're so refreshingly uncontrived. As long as we're wearing them."

Indeed, big fashion is an industry built on exclusivity -- but, as West also points out, fashion mines the ingenuity of the communities it boxes out for ideas it can sell back to them, albeit at much higher markup. Only now, instead of looking to street-style blogs, stylists are looking to Google Street View. (New York Magazine featured London stylist Alice Goddard, who had indeed come up with a fashion editorial spread composed of screenshots pulled from Google Maps' Street View app.)

Of course, this is nothing new; in the '90s -- a fashion era marked by utilitarian and mall clothes that, not coincidentally, is having a major moment in 2014 -- we saw the fashion repackaging of grunge when designer Marc Jacobs sent flannel shirts and thermals down the runway for Perry Ellis. Normcore isn't the new black, it's the new grunge.

Which means it can only reach one logical conclusion. Don't be surprised if you see an influx of fashion houses trying to sell you plain white T-shirts that cost $400.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2014 D1

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