Think of the average UC Berkeley student — what comes to mind? Countercultural leanings? Likely. Strong feelings about Main Stacks, a state of perpetual caffeination and a penchant for Cal gear? Almost certainly. Fashion sense? Not exactly. While images of the suit-clad students of the Free Speech Movement might look pretty dapper to millennial eyes, UC Berkeley’s student body is known more for its activism than its sartorial instincts. But sometime within the past year, the masses on Sproul — sporting the usual Birkenstocks, light wash Levi’s and Patagonia pullovers — have been looking, well, rather cool. Enter normcore: the anti-fashion fashion trend that didn’t really start out as a fashion statement at all.
The neologism was coined by the trend forecasting group K-Hole as part of their October 2013 report “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” In the report, the artists of K-Hole describe normcore as a set of attitudes, not fashion conventions. Normcore, per its original conceptualization, is an orientation toward homogeneity. As K-Hole explains, “normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness.” So, normcore is a sort of postpostmodern hipsterdom under which people aren’t striving to be special by being different — they’re not striving to be special at all.
The conventions that have come to be associated with normcore were incubating long before K-Hole came up with the vocabulary. Historically, it’s easy to locate normcore within the recent resurgence of ’90s fashion and garden-variety hipsterdom. In theory, normcore is what would happen if a bunch of outdoor hipsters attempting Scandinavian minimalism traveled back to 1995 and raided the “Seinfeld” cast’s wardrobe. In practice, normcore is what happens when you buy a Costco three-pack of white T-shirts to wear with your dad’s aqua windbreaker and the Nike Frees you got for Christmas. In a way, it is tempting to look at normcore as hipsterdom’s final exploitative frontier. Hipsters have long appropriated from people of color and co-opted queer signifiers. Now, there’s nothing left to cull from except the fashion associated with middle-aged American tourists. Think chinos, visors and vaguely orthopedic sneakers — but hip!
When it comes to normcore at UC Berkeley, matters of intentionality loom large. Are you only normcore if you intend to be? It’s quite possible that students are wearing the same old Tevas and nondescript hoodies they always have, but now, because of normcore, these outfits pass as trendy. Sophia Fish, a junior rhetoric major and a creative director at BARE Magazine, agrees. “I totally see it (normcore) at Berkeley, both intentionally and not intentionally,” Fish explains. “But, in that sense, I guess I would consider normcore to be dependent on intentionality.”
Normcore, more so than other trends, is linked to intentionality because many of the garments associated with it — athletic gear and workwear chief among them — are dislocated from their intended uses when styled accordingly. Wearing clothing that is designed for athletic performance (such as New Balance sneakers or Adidas track suits) or manual labor (the brands Dickies and Carhartt come to mind) without participating in these activities is an act of dislocation and, in effect, privileges form over function. Sean Soave, a junior computer science major, is quick to emphasize normcore’s hidden-in-plain-sight sensibility. “It’s like … being undercover,” Soave explains. “You’re putting your outfit together, and you’re going for the aesthetic of a normal person, but you aren’t them. It’s stealth mall chic. It’s ironic conformity.” This self-awareness is precisely why intention is so central to normcore — with it, conformity takes on a defiant edge. Without it, any middle-aged man wearing Sears jeans and a hawaiian shirt is de facto normcore.
Intention and irony also come into play when considering normcore’s sociocultural significance, one foregrounded by a celebration of the trappings of mass culture, not couture. To this end, embracing sameness might be framed as a sort of stealthy subversion, a reaction against a largely inaccessible fashion industry that hurtles along at a breakneck pace. But framing normcore, self-aware as it may be, as a sort of bottom-up reaction against the fashion industry ignores the complexity of exchange that occurs between “high” and “low” fashion. Fish is quick to point out this contradiction, noting that normcore “seems to be one of the few fashion trends that actually can reach a wide audience because it doesn’t cost a lot. It’s very thrift-friendly, whereas a lot of other trends aren’t. But, at fashion week this year, we saw all these high fashion runways with these Birkenstock-style shoes, like Celine. Which turns it the other way.”
The other way, indeed. Fashion labels, quick to capitalize on normcore’s ascendance, have been copying normcore silhouettes and styles for several seasons — and at a major markup. This reappropriation, deemed “fauxcore” by the New York Times, means that consumers at the top of the tax bracket can now augment their wardrobes with a J. Crew leather baseball cap ($110), a Moncler hooded varsity jacket ($695), Max Studio platform sandals ($228) or Helen Lawrence denim overalls ($685). It is clear that normcore’s subversive potential, if any, is hindered in part because of the ease with which its conventions have been absorbed into the world of high fashion. As David Tow, a member of UC Berkeley’s Frankfurt School Working Group (and the only 30-something interviewed for this article) explains, “If subversion occurs, it’s only a nostalgic subversion — a subversion on a barren site — because it attempts to rehabilitate cultural norms that are faded, gone, or contemporarily irrelevant. Subvert is too strong a term for what it does, “ he continues. “I think, if anything, normcore practicians … play with homogeneity.”
Whether normcore’s adherents are playing with homogeneity or simply toying with the trend of the moment, the fact remains that normcore has lodged itself in the collective consciousness of the fashion-conscious, for better or for worse. Maybe, instead of interrogating exactly what constitutes normcore, we should be asking ourselves why we are so obsessed with it in the first place.
At UC Berkeley, at least, the answer isn’t obvious. “Are people passionate about this?” asks Sammy Sassoon, a senior sociology major wearing the perfunctory Hanes socks and thrift-store white T-shirt. “I’m just like, this looks cute to me!” Cute: perhaps the most straightforward justification of normcore possible, if one was ever needed. As for the ubiquitous Berkeley Birkenstocks? They’re here to stay — if not for the cute, then certainly for the comfort.