On the origins of “normcore”

In Arts & Culture, The Fashion IssueLeave a Comment

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Dressing to blend in might make you unique. But “normcore” has a story far from bland.
Kosalan Kathiramalanthan investigates (and spiral)

My mornings have been the same since Grade 9: Wake up. Snooze the alarm for 15 minutes. Wake up again. Drag myself to the shower. Fall asleep under the hot water. Then came the part I hated—looking at the same four shirts and two pairs of jeans as yesterday, and asking myself: What the fuck am I going to wear?  The routine carried into university. But it changed when I learned about “normcore.” 

In the depths of YouTube one night, I found a meme-esque video by Casually Explained about men’s fashion. They brought up normcore and described it as wearing your outfit ironically, to intentionally be as bland as possible.

Until then, I had assumed that fashion could only be one of two things. You either looked good or you looked terrible—with no middle ground. Self-admittedly, I put myself in the “terrible” category, with only one thing keeping me from being the fashion god that I wanted to be: money.

Cash was tight as a kid. I was raised with a frugal mindset, always questioning if I really needed something before buying it—especially clothes. Because of my family’s finances, it often meant shopping at the same places—Walmart or Sears.

Between buyers’ remorse or a bland clothing selection, I always chose the latter. I felt that being “fashionable” was unattainable for me. I was destined to be bland. Until years later, when I learned there was a subculture in fashion where I could not only feel accepted but had been unknowingly a part of. I jumped on board. no questions asked.

For about a year, I began to experiment with the little cash I was able to save, keeping this new fashion identity and newfound confidence in mind.

When I learned The Eyeopener was doing THE FASHION ISSUE, I knew I had to write about normcore. I pitched the story on how issues of class both restricted and liberated my sense of fashion. 

I started with some research. As much as I loved the trend, I still had no clue where it came from. One of the first things I read was a 2013 report called “Youth Mode: A Report On Freedom,” which explored normcore. It was by a trend forecasting group called K-HOLE. The group explained that normcore was a response to what they called “mass indie” culture—the idea that people who are so focused on what makes them unique end up forming niches and get lost in the sameness they initially tried to escape. Normcore sought to break that standard—by dressing to blend in anywhere. 

When I found the report, I thought I hit the jackpot. The ideas that K-HOLE offered resonated with me. As someone who was used to jumping between social circles, the ideas of adaptability and a lack of identity spoke to me. 

That’s when the nightmare began.

All I needed was a little more background research and a couple of voices, and I would be set. So I dug deeper, but slowly realized there was an intense debate around the trend. I saw clashing headlines, like “Normcore Is the First Brilliant Meme of 2014” up against “10 Reasons You, Normcore Guy, Are An Idiot.”

The common thread was that the trend must be one big joke. At first I brushed it off, figuring it was a reference to the ironic nature of normcore.

Then I read the article, “Normcore Was Always a Fake Trend: Alexa Chung Reports on This Hell on Earth.” The author wrote that K-HOLE wasn’t a serious organization, but a group of performance artists modelling as one.

What. The. Fuck.

That couldn’t be right. Nothing on their website indicated they were a performance art group. But the more I looked, the more people called them a parody group. 

I needed an answer, so I went to the one place I could trust: Wikipedia. After stumbling on the wrong K-HOLE article—apparently “k-hole” also refers to the feeling of disassociation when you’re tripping balls on Ketamine (which I was starting to mildly experience from sleep deprivation)—I still had no answers.

Has my sense of fashion been a meme this entire fucking time? I was livid—not because my wholesome story about finding my sense of fashion had hit a wall, but because my fashion identity suddenly seemed to lose its earnest meaning.

I had already invested way too much time into this story and, goddamn it, I was going to get to an answer—one way or another. The internet had failed me. I needed an expert.

This led me to Henry Navarro Delgado, a Ryerson fashion assistant professor and an expert on contemporary fashion. He explained that normcore was older than I thought. 

“Normcore was around before it was named as such,” said Delgado. “No wonder 1990s images of Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld come up if you do a search about it.” 

But as for the exact origin of the trend, there was no clear answer for that.

“The thing about trends is that there is never a single originator, author or authors.” Trends sprout spontaneously, he said, and are as unpredictable as any other cultural or political movement. 

But someone invented the word. While K-HOLE played a role in its development, it was actually first used in the webcomic, Templar, Arizona.

Has my sense of fashion been a meme this entire fucking time?

I recognized the webcomic from the rage-filled night before. I found an article called, “I’m sorry, I accidentally invented Normcore,” by cartoonist Ryan Estrada, who wrote the guest strip for Templar, Arizona. I knew I had to talk to him.

I shot Estrada an email and asked what inspired the term “normcore.” I anxiously waited. 

At 12:21 a.m. EST, he replied: “I was simply trying to come up with a joke about the characters of Templar, AZ. The series is about an alternate reality about unique and strange subcultures. So I just invented a bunch of fun ones.” 

Turns out, he just needed a punchline. 

“I didn’t know how to end it, so I thought about what might actually be surprising to the characters in that world. And I decided to go with someone so aggressively status quo that the characters in the comic were frightened.”

For Estrada, life went on. But when normcore had its viral growth in 2013, he found himself thrust into the conversation on Twitter. 

“To be honest, I completely [forgot] writing that comic…I wrote 50 other guest strips that sleepless month and most of them, like the normcore gag, were unfunny and forgettable. It didn’t come to my attention until it was runner-up for [Oxford’s] word of the year [in 2014]” said Estrada. It ended up losing to “vape.”

It was odd that many articles on normcore glossed over Estrada’s existence. But he never had any problem with that. “I don’t feel any ownership or real connection to it, I’m just a bit of trivia attached. And although it was never intended, I know it accidentally describes my boring basic fashion sense!” 

After sleepless nights, Redbull and a blue raspberry Five Hour Energy shot, I had confirmed that normcore started as a joke. But where did that leave me and my identity crisis?

Normcore has nothing to say about our culture at all, “‘normcore’ is a result of it,” said Delgado. And that is at the heart of what the discourse on normcore has been missing. 

It doesn’t matter where the word came from. Dressing “normal” has always been a thing—it just varied based on what “normal” looked like at the time. At the end of the day, it was never going to change the fact that I was stuck with those four shirts and two pairs of jeans. And I would eventually grow to love them, regardless.

Estrada said it pretty well: “If some trend or idea means something to one person, it’s real[…]That’s what’s amazing to me…Something I said as a dumb joke about a fictional town has gathered so many more meanings now that it’s on its own out there.”

And you know what? I think I can rest easy with that.

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