Sunday, 20 July 2014

042: Normcore -- yes and no (mostly no)

Normcore first came to my attention as a fashion meme a while back. It's hard to pin down exactly what people mean by it; opinions vary. Some people suggest that if you're dressing normcore, you look like a tourist in your own city; weirdly mismatched clothes, kind of like all that's left clean in your suitcase at the end of a two-week vacation, comfortable athletic shoes and a kind of "I chose these clothes and I don't care" vibe. But then there's people who insist that the selection of the clothes themselves is what's important, and point to Jerry Seinfeld's "dad jeans" and bland oversized button-downs as being the optimal normcore choice for either sex; a kind of deliberate removal of any fashion vibe from your outfit. Some people think of it merely as "anti-fashion" and their idea seems to be that you buy ugly utilitarian clothes, like white nursing clogs and off-brand knock-off meshback baseball hats, and make them into outfits with bland ordinary clothes like cheap white T-shirts and inexpensive jeans and K-Mart fleece hoodies.

I gather that this trend started in Manhattan, where hipster kids decided to mock the tourists who invaded their trendy neighbourhoods -- by buying poorly-fitted jeans and ghastly oversized T-shirts from faraway unhip touristy destinations, and laughing with each other over $9 Americanos about how charmingly horrible they looked. I expect this would have died out quickly as being a waste of money, if nothing else, except that New York Magazine got hold of it and did an article. Unfortunately I think what happened is that the columnist conflated two things. One was the mocking hipster kids, and the other was something that happens to all of us; being seen in clothes that don't necessarily express your personality but utilitarian necessity. Sometimes you just need to run down to the store for a loaf of bread without checking to make sure that you're wearing the right number of rubber bracelets and that the sleeves of your Armani jacket are zhoozhed up enough to show them. And that's when the Patagonia fleece that your cousin gave you two Christmases ago comes out of the closet because it's handy and raining. Dog-walking clothes; heavy jeans with big functional pockets, off-brand black sneakers that you bought for $6.79 in a factory outlet store because when they get dogshit on them, you toss them. Or, as Bette Davis said in Cabin in the Cotton, "Oh, this old thing? Why, I only wear this when I don't care what people think of me." The columnist took the hipsters and the utilitarian dog-walkers and put them together and normcore had a name and a presence. And a philosophy that immediately broke into a dozen schisms.

When I first got interested in normcore, I went looking for it in Second Life on Marketplace. And the most interesting thing I found, the thing that fascinated me immediately, is that there is nothing.  N-O-T-H-I-N-G. As of 7 AM SLT on July 20, 2014, not a single item on Marketplace has a description containing the word "normcore". Now, I just thought that was pretty amazing. I mean, this is Second Life, dedicated to the proposition that there is no nuance of clothing, hair, makeup, shoes, shape, and skin that is too tiny and subtle to put into the fatpack. You can dress like a football player or an ancient Roman matron or a large-breasted German shepherd, but most especially you can dress like any page from the most recent issue of American Vogue if you know where to shop. (I once bought a gorgeously textured and painstakingly accurate SL reproduction of a Jean-Paul Gaultier puffy about three months after it had been seen on the runway, and it was marked down; I guess the cool kids were on to other seasons.) If you Google "Second Life + normcore", you get this clever and funny blog post and a few other people talking about it, and that's it. The blogger walks you through the main schisms complete with hashtags like #seinfeldcore, and all in all I don't think she is seriously suggesting that anyone in SL actually try to dress normcore. In an environment like SL, that is a bubbling cauldron of fashion innovation far beyond the abilities of mere humans, no one is trying to sell me normcore. And that's really interesting.

I'm open to discussion, but I presently suspect that the very fact that SL is a bubbling cauldron of fashion innovation is what makes it anti-normcore. Part of it is a kind of retailer's paranoia that says, "OMG, if we encourage them to wear ordinary clothes, they'll never buy anything new again!" Well, no. Perhaps in RL, although mostly what brings that situation on is advancing middle age, but not in SL. SL is where people go to find out not only what they might look like in a copy of that MiuMiu day dress but to pay the financial equivalent of the cost of a stick of chewing gum to have the experience. There is a financial impetus to bring the copy of the MiuMiu to the SL retail level, whereas no one is exactly clamouring for a digital knock-off of a pair of grey Kmart sweat pants. And when you add in that, really, there is no such thing in SL as running down for a loaf of bread, and you can change your outfit to be perfect by clicking a button, and that rain, snow, and dogshit will never impact your clothing choices -- normcore is never going to catch on in Second Life unless it's a three-week thing and then on to the next. There's no physical reason for it to do so and it's much more fun to make your av sexy and attractive than dull and ordinary.

There is one positive thing I took away from all this. A lot of the philosophy that surrounds normcore is hard to follow and some of it is quite contradictory. (Again, I think it's about the split between the mocking hipsters and the functional dog-walkers.) One piece of the philosophy I did find sensible and useful, though. In RL, if you're out and about in a $14,000 couture white leather jacket by Proenza Schouler, it's unlikely that you'll agree to take part in an impromptu game of touch football. RL high fashion can set you apart from "ordinary people" if only for the reason that you can't run in heels, and in general by embracing high fashion you rule out ... well, you can't participate in things around you as readily. This is something I see all the time in Second Life; we're surrounded by fascinating artworks and technical achievements that would be impossible in RL, and we can't spare the time to visit them because we're too busy dancing, shopping, and fucking.

So here's the idea that I found to have a SL application:

Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. "You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup."

In RL, if you're dressed normcore, you can have fun doing something without worrying if you'll ruin your expensive jacket. In SL, that's not an issue -- but our detachment can frequently keep us from enjoying fascinating things and people around us. If dressing normcore in RL helps people drop the pretense in SL, I'm for it. But just considering normcore as a philosophy has helped me drop my own detachment and do more fun things in SL, and I recommend that approach to you.

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