Beware of Normcore

The bogus-sounding new fashion trend is all too real.

normcore shoes.
Normcore is an unlogo’d sneaker.

Photo by Thinkstock

Paging all male Slate readers, especially those who are willfully and violently indifferent to fashion, which, I suspect, is pretty much all of you. (No offense.)

Fellahs! I have a surprise announcement: You are now, at this particular moment in history, whether you like it or not, at the very apex of style. You are normcore.


Normcore is gray sweatpants pretending to be trousers. Normcore is a seen-better-days faun-colored golf knit. Normcore is an unlogo’d sneaker.

Normcore is the opposite of wearing a pair of white patent-leather bejeweled Versace assless chaps. Normcore is oblivious to Givenchy shaved-beaver man purses. Normcore knows nothing of fluorescent-studded Louboutin sneakers.

Normcore is safe. Normcore is same-y. The normcore look is a knowing piss-take of the heterosexual male’s desperate desire to be sartorially unremarkable. Normcore is not brave or butch or swagger-y. Normcore is about dressing like a mild-mannered mental patient or a bewildered Icelandic exchange student circa 1984.

The normcore phenomenon was identified by a trend-forecasting company named K-Hole and then called out by New York mag in February. It would be easy, based on the flurry of subsequent articles, to come away with the impression that normcore is a bogus flash-in-the-pan niblet of seasonal fashion ephemera. Au contraire. Normcore was a long time coming. Normcore is for real.

The idea, more or less, is that in an era that embraces the distinct, bespoke, and quirky, the final fashion frontier is dressing like a big fat anonymous nobody. The seeds were planted in the early ’00s with the advent of the preppy revival. J. Crew became the go-to place for a generation of young moderns who were looking for well-cut but restrained classics. Ditto Brooks Brothers. To shop was to swim through a sea of gray V-necks or crisp button-downs. WASP-y chic was back. Kennedy-era style was de rigueur. Eventually the legendary Preppy Handbook got an update and reprint. I watched with a certain amount of concern as fashionable men abandoned more exhibitionistic, hedonistic styles and embraced these dour signifiers of conservative anal-retention.

In tandem with this Ivy League revival, we also saw—I am not sure who “we” are, but I am going to persist in using the word anyway because it makes me feel omnipotent and powerful, which, believe me, is a priority when you are my height, and shrinking. Anyway, we also saw the birth of the heritage movement. Suddenly mild-mannered middle-class faux-hemians began seeking out Carhartt and Dickies and other working-class work-wear brands of yore. It was the bland leading the bland. But things were about to get blander. Preppie copulated with heritage and produced the style that would later be dubbed normcore.

My first encounter with this new I-would-rather-die-than-wear-anything-flamboyant aesthetic occurred in 2012 when Parisian designer Alexandre Mattiussi launched his menswear collection under the label AMI. The look was nonthreatening and tidy. Think guidance counselor, possibly Belgian. These simple clothes—a camel-colored blouson (pardon the un-normcoreness of “blouson,” but there is no other option), a decent pair of slacks, an innocuous dad sweater—were stripped of any flourishes. Reflecting the name Ami, the brand identity was friendly and nonthreatening. This is one of the deceptive things about normcore. It appears good-natured, but, as I will illustrate to you, it can be deadly and venomous. This is the terrifying paradox of normcore.

The very nature of normcore—in which a trendy, goal-post-moving, fashion-obsessed bloke cunningly disguises himself so as to appear fashion-oblivious—makes it profoundly hazardous. Booby traps and potential landmines abound. Sorting the unwitting normcore dude from the intentional normcorer is one of many perils. Do not assume that the person before you is a normcore dude just because he is wearing squishy caramel-colored Mephistos and a fully buttoned Mr. Rogers cardigan with pockets. We found this out the hard way.

Last week we complimented a gal pal’s new beau on his normcore stylings. He had no idea what we was talking about. By the time we bumbled through an explanation—“It’s a nuanced anti-fashion look … for people who are … badly dressed … I mean … people who are disinclined to dress in a more overtly stylish manner”—he was thoroughly offended. It took hours to talk him and his unlogo’d amphibious Pacific Northwest walking shoes in off the ledge.

Even if a guy is, in fact, a genuine, card-carrying normcorer, it is best not to address him as such. Like hippies and punks and metrosexuals, normcore adherents are wary of declaring their affiliation with their group. Don’t argue with them. It’s best to just compliment your normcorer on his dusty-plum-colored made-in-Romania windbreaker and leave it at that. If normcorers start to feel that they have been cornered or “busted,” God only knows what they will come up with next. If they sense they have been “exposed,” they will feel obliged to concoct some new and even more terrifyingly perverse mode of dressing.

When dealing with a suspected normcorer, it is important to realize that many of these men often resemble depressed ’80s perverts. We are talking socks with sandals. This does not mean that they are, in fact, depressed ’80s perverts. Please try to avoid making any libelous insinuations.

While I am sensitive to the needs of the normcorporation and its flock, I must confess to a certain ambivalence. Normcore loathes the flashy, the parvenue, the nouveau riche, and everything else we hold dear. We have always had a more straightforward approach, celebrating style in a more overt and, dare we say it, less disingenuous manner.

Normcore defenders would doubtlessly claim that simple clothes are more honest. Without the distracting bells and whistles of fashion, the real essence of an individual is permitted to shine. Though I applaud the optimism inherent in this point of view, I am concerned that the defenders might be overestimating the shine potential of the average dude. Most of us need all the packaging and promotion we can get.

For those earnest be-sweatpanted readers who find themselves unwittingly caught up in this fashion madness, I have the following advice: Stay calm. Don’t freak out. Do not attempt to normcordon yourself off from the trendy normcorers. Do not attempt to distance yourself by running out and buying a pair of white patent-leather bejeweled Versace assless chaps. Why should you change your spots? The comfy, nondescript, low-key clothes you are wearing are authentically yours, which is more than can be said for the normcore crew. They are just faking it. You are the real deal. So enjoy the spotlight. This is your moment.