Don’t Call it Normcore. Call It Brokecore.

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, April 4, 2014 12:58 EDT
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Oh boy, the New York Times has discovered the “normcore” trend. Next Time will do something on it, and it will be considered passé in record time, like rising and falling in the space of two months. Not that people will stop dressing this way, of course. But calling it “normcore” and having a bunch of think pieces about it will be thankfully over before most people have ever heard of this trend. Which means I will thankfully never read another paragraph like this:

A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.

It is earnest engagement with mainstream culture? Or are you wearing those cargo shorts with an oversized sweatshirt ironically?

How about option #3: This is what broke young people who have to shop at Goodwill look like. If you actually remember the early 90s—I was in high school, so really I have no choice—then the slideshow at the NY Times or any of the other slideshows out there, you will be immediately reminded of the whole “thrift store chic” or “grunge” thing that captured the fashion media’s attention back then. Young Gen Xers were wearing flannels shirts and old T-shirts and used jeans! What a fashion statement! How clever? Who would have thought you could find such forward fashion thinking by going to a thrift store?

Then, as now, the fact that people shopped at thrift stores to be, you know, thrifty, was pointedly ignored. “Thrift store chic” was developed out of necessity, the result of young people who were coasting in the post-Reagan years with few economic opportunities (though we did, at least, have access to inexpensive college educations, unlike the millennials) and who discovered that they could buy thrift store clothes and have fun, creative wardrobes on a pittance. Yes, it’s playful and stylish! But that shouldn’t distract from the fact that what drives trends like this is not a love of irony or an attempt to make a statement per se. The lack of money leads you to the thrift store, and from there, you start messing around and trying to turn lemons into lemonade.

I suppose the difference now is that there’s “fast fashion”, but that stuff falls apart and isn’t a good investment for you dollar. Plus, as with thrift store chic, once you get the hang of resale shopping, you get really good at learning how to craft unique looks out of used clothes, and you don’t really want to go back. I can afford new clothes now, for instance, but I still tend to buy resale most of the time, because I’m good at it and I still enjoy saving money.

And yes, it’s true that once these kinds of street fashions capture the eye of designers, you start seeing expensive versions of the same “look” pop up in retail shops. That was true when Madonna’s thrift store lace get-ups became mainstream store stuff. That was true when Kurt Cobain’s ratty women’s cardigans started to be sold directly as men’s sweaters. That’s going to be true now, as young, broke hip kids who, because they’re creative and young, can make Gap shirts and stonewashed jeans and sandals somehow look chic. There’s nothing new at all about this. Whenever the youngest adult generation is trying to scrape by without a lot of job opportunities or money, they tend to rediscover the pleasures of creating your own style from used clothes instead of just buying off the hanger at retail shops.

The reason the fashion press ignores the economic angle, of course, is they are there to get people to buy expensive goods and reminding them that you can actually have more fun with clothes sometimes if you spend less is bad for business. But let’s not be fooled. “Normcore” isn’t a new thing, and the only reason it looks different in many ways than the thrift store chic of the past is what you find on a Salvation Army rack has changed somewhat. (So much khaki. So much.) So you’re going to get Adias logos instead of what we could find when I was young, such as used Led Zepplin shirts or church camp shirts. But same basic idea.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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