The Normcore of “Boy Kings”*

Here’s the full paper I gave at the Eastern Sociological Society Conference, February 28, 2015.

* “Boy Kings” is taken from Kate Losse’s book, The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network, 2012. Free Press.

Normcore of Boy Kings

This paper takes up the recent (and now, most likely, passé) trend-normcore and comes from numerous discussions with my undergraduate students at FIT. Thanks to them, we had great discussions about both normcore and the basic bitch phenomena. I’m not 100% on this, but it felt like these two trends emerged around the same time and played off one another.

First, normcore has been described as an anti-fashion fashion, no label look, or “the look of nothing.” It has a dad quality to it and exemplars include Steve Jobs, Jerry Seinfield, and, important for this discussion, Matthew Brodrick’s character in the movie War Games. Barack Obama, when in his dad jeans, is normcore too. It plays on the trends of the 80s—stonewashed jeans, slightly high-waisted and so-called “relaxed” in cut. These are the antithesis of low-waisted, lycra skinny jeans. The tailoring of normcore tends toward boxy and comfortable. Hoodies play a prominent role but anything from the 1980s to early 90s counts. I would say the look is pretty androgynous and when feminine/women types go normcore, they draw from the same decade, and even the same items—I’m thinking New Balance sneakers, white tennis shoes, white birks. If and when normcore is tailored for women, it may look like Eileen from Seinfield but overall, I think the look is masculine. Or it draws its inspiration from dad’s closet (maybe the father to Hannah in Girls dresses the look). Anyway, here are some examples:

normcore4

WarGames-matthew-broderick-20696871-634-425normcore3

The marketing group, K-hole, coined the term normcore, which struck a nerve in fashion circles. K-hole describe normcore as coming out of the following moment:

The most different thing to do is to reject being different all together. When the fringes get more and more crowded, Mass Indie turns toward the middle. Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness.

Sameness here refers to something pretty curated and specific however. As I previously described, the items and markers of normcore are now vintage. People, especially the fashion conscious, are not really dressing like their dads; they’re not really dressing like a Midwesterner or like Suburban moms because doing so would render them truly invisible. As I will explain in what follows, normcore is not at all about being invisible. Instead, it’s about standing out. The ways in which normcore does this through the use of fashion highlight the dialectic of fashion as well as work through our collective fantasies and anxieties. Specifically, I argue, the cultural and historical references normcore makes come from the time period when computers were increasingly entering into peoples homes, offices, and schools. Culturally we were unsure what this new technology meant—I locate this around the early to mid 1980s (but this is only an educated guess, I’d love to hear from historians).

Why is everyone thinking / writing about THIS trend (vs the gazillion others)?

The fashion crowd was not the only one taken by this normcore turn. Social theorists took a stab at it as well. Kate Crawford, in her piece for the New Inquiry “The Anxieties of Big Data,” argues that normcore is a response to widespread digital surveillance, such as NSA, and that dressing plainly allows one to fade into the environment, to not stand out or get attention. Crawford even notes that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encouraged protesters to dress like tourists so they could easily blend in and escape the police gaze. She writes,

In other words, the concept of normcore …captures precisely this moment of mass surveillance meeting mass consumerism. It reflects the dispersed anxiety of a populace that wishes nothing more than to shed its own subjectivity.

However, fashion has responded to unending digital surveillance. The following looks come out of trying to “shed subjectivity” in public space–the images illustrate ‘fashions” that confuse facial recognition programs. They look nothing like normcore. antisurve

make1antisurveill

Shedding subjectivity can be accomplished through dress, of course; this is one of the main technologies prisons, the military, religious separatists, private schools, etc, use to de-individualize members. Disappearing is not the point of normcore. Normcore comes out of the “truly cool” (who are these people anyway?) “mastering” “sameness” through fashion and lifestyle (KHOLE). Playing around with these styles is a way to signal a specific subjectivity—a truly cool one that’s in on both the ironies and cycles of fashion.

Crawford goes on to make an interesting connection to a influential piece by the collective “PLAN C’ titled “we are all very anxious”. In this piece the authors argue that current structures of capitalism spreads both mass surveillance and economic precarity throughout society, creating and sustaining a general affect of anxiety. Crawford takes up this mood of generalized anxiety and suggests that it finds expression through fashion, or, in this case, a rejection of fashion. This rejection allows everyone a way to evade the anxieties of subject-hood, or of the work it takes to be, in K-hole’s terminology, “different.” Crawford notes,

the cultural idea of disappearing has become cool at the very historical moment when it has become almost impossible because of big data and widespread surveillance. Blending in gives you a particular kind of power

These are great connections between fashion, structural conditions, and the diffuse cultural mood that results. But I also think Crawford takes normcore too literally and misses just how fashionable the trend is (was). Again, this is taken up by the “truly cool” who are never not trying to fade from view. Even K-hole noted that the lack of fashion in normcore came out of trying to locate difference:

Acting Basic is not a solution to Mass Indie problems because it’s still based on difference.

Which is to say that normcore, in its plain nerdiness is a way to act different, or to stand out. Normcore allows one to stand out against (and this is speculation) fast fashion, high fashion, unethical fashion to name a few.

Importantly, this ability to stand out through looking like nothing is for the privileged, able-bodied, and attractive youth. There have been some great posts on how normcore is for the already privileged who do not need fashion at all. Blogger Cat Smith writes,

Blending in is a privilege only available to a few….there’s nothing really normal about normcore.  It is this self-awareness that makes it ultimately another way of excluding people.

Normcore is nothing new

K-hole’s attention to fashion’s dialectic, the back and forth between the center and the fringe, is nothing new. George Simmel theorized fashion as the movement between the need to differentiate from the group, to stand out as an unique individual and the counter force, the need to fit in. He labeled these valences union and isolation: He writes, “Two social tendencies are essential to the establishment of fashion, namely, the need of union on the one hand and the need of isolation on the other” (546). Both of these elements must be present for fashion to take root. He further suggests that the elite use fashion to differentiate themselves from the rest of society. According to Simmel, the classes below the elite copy their style and this causes the upper echelon to keep changing their look. (There’s a ton to be said/written about differentiation at all class levels–fashion theory has taken Simmel to task on this, if I remember correctly)

Normcore is just another expression of the push and pull between difference or isolation and repetition, or union. In fact, normcore represents the age-old practice in fashion of copping the styles of those at the top—the Kings and Queens, or in today’s parlance, the 1%. Today our kings are Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, SV coders, hackers and nerds. If there is a connection between normcore and digital technology—it’s more about dressing like a hacker, or like the type of person that Silicon Valley would invest millions of dollars in, than it is donning a social camouflage. That is to say, it’s more about standing out then it is about blending in, or “shedding subjectivity” (as Crawford argued).

Standing out

Kate Losse, the author of The Boy Kings (an auto-ethnographic account of her time working at Facebook), describes the type of person that appeals to SV. In the following passage she compares the ideal type/look of SV programmer to the characteture of the brogrammer, which is more of an amped up frat guy (and the type of person the media latched onto as representative of SV masculinity). The person that garners attention to the monied men of SV is the one who:

…appeal to the boy-genius fetishes of VCs. The loud and tacky “brogrammer” is a false flag– if you are not a brogrammer, the logic goes, you must be an outcast genius who has suffered long and would never oppress a fly. The industry is full not of the former but the latter– programmers who are smart and may present as harmlessly “nerdy” but whose sense of themselves as being “the underdog”

Normcore, as a style, takes up the look of the “nerdy” “nice, shy guy” that appeals to the “boy-genius fetishes of VCs (VC refers to Venture Capitalists). Looking like you’d “never oppress a fly” signals a work ethic that is unconcerned with fashion/flash (the gender dynamic warrant further theorizing but normcore is decidedly masculine, and in this read, decidedly white (as is SV culture).

Again, from my read, the look draws heavily from the 1980s, which was the beginning of cultural narratives and representation of nerd/computer hacker chic. The movie War Games exemplify the look. In fact, looking at the Matthew Brodrick’s character in the movie, or his costuming, it becomes clear that the fashion of the computer geek has changed little over the past 30 years. The fact that the fashion crowd is now coopting these symbols suggests that those concerned with distinction, or isolation, are drawing inspiration from a cultural moment in American culture—the rise of the computer geek. Or, 1984. Thus, for the high fashion crowd, it’s the latest way to stand out.

I’m in agreement that structural, economic shifts underlie normcore. The geeks, nerds or, again to borrow Losse’s term, “boy kings” of SV are having their moment in fashion because of their relative economic stability. Losse describes the economy of the tech industry here:

as our own American economy crumbles, the tech economy becomes a kind of substitute/fantasy of a privatized European model of nationhood in the midst of America’s deepening socioeconomic crises. If one joins the private nation of the tech company, one can have healthcare, healthfulness, youth, innocence, travel, pink-cheeked men in floppy haircuts, modernity, utility, luxury, hope. Or you can just be an attendee with a backpack that evokes the possibility all of these things.

The diffusion of economic precarity creates a mood of anxiety and, borrowing from Lauren Berlant, diminishes our ability to imagine a good life. Simmel again noted that the “more nervous an age, the more rapidly the fashions change”—perhaps normcore is the manifestation of an exhaustion with nervousness itself, a way to try to capture an unchanging (at least since the 1980s) and unfashionable geek subculture. Those nerds are now winning and everyone wants in. Fashion has always taken up fantasy, nostalgia, and anxieties. Normcore stands out precisely because of how it’s expressing all of the above—

Fantasy—as Losse suggests, dressing in this mode appeals to the nerd culture of SV, which seems to be the only industry benefitting from neoliberal economic policies. We hear of young programmers designing apps and getting instant money (millions) from Venture capitalists, or we hear of working at Google and having a yoga room and organic cafeteria—working in or for the SV industry looks like a fairy tale or, perhaps more apt, a never-never land, to the rest of the US work force where wages have stagnated, benefits are cut, and jobs are temporary.

Nostalgia—Normcore draws heavily from the looks of the 1980s—and specifically the look of the nerd, computer geek. This was the beginning of personal computers, the moment in time when computers hit the mass market and more people had access to digital technology right in their homes. Our cultural imaginings of computer technology at this time were innocent and heroic, where the hero was always the nerd—who was also always a boy. This figure was our defense against the imagined power of computer technology.

It’s basic

Drawing from Simmel, and my students, we see that normcore, especially when taken up by the fashion crowd, is not about blending in to remain unseen. In fact, blending in is (and this trend arose at the same time as normcore) referred to as being “basic”. Basic is as gendered as is normcore and usually refers to young women (sometimes called basic bitches). (IDK the origins of “basic”). Basic is used to describe someone, a woman, who is predictable, stereotypically suburban: It’s about consumption choices and opportunities, or a lack of original taste. Girls at the mall, drinking starbucks frappacinos, wearing uggs and listening to taylor swift.m (And hopefully my next post will be on the derision aimed at the “girl”–usually white, often basic–I keep picking up at various cultural registers)

24-basic-bitch.w245.h368

This is basic and it’s everywhere—it’s the polar opposite of normcore. Basic is not making a political statement. Normcore, as it co-evolved with basic, is about standing in direct relief to this Suburban style of fitting in. If anything, normcore may harken back to the beginning of mall culture, and it may be the origin of basic. If basic is the mass consumer trend, the normcore is its (imagined) root.

In summary, normcore is dressing up, both the fashion and class chain—when those at the top are Zuckerbergs, Jobs, and geeky hacker boys.

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