Norm core

posted in: Designing, Inspiration | 11

Until Su of Sewstyled drew “Norm Core” to my attention i had a strange idea about what it was. I thought Norm Core was a bit of a joke trend – the trend that isn’t a trend, fashion that isn’t fashion. A variety of ironic dressing that makes a virtue of dressing in ‘ugly” clothes in order to stand out from the crowd. Geek-type clothes or maybe what is unkindly known as American tourist.

Actually since Sue mentioned an article in the Guardian, I have found out more. It is the opposite of what I thought. It is a continuation of the anti-logo, anti-consumerist position. Norm Core as a fashion or trend simply requires that we wear more or less the same as everyone else! Norm core is a style that gives up the idea of following fashion (supposedly) and choosing bland conformist mainstream outfits. An example would be the billionaire tech giants who wear jeans and a grey T-shirt. Of course the big brands (consumerist, multi-national, logo-bound brands) have appropriated it, just as they did with all previous rebellions against convention eg. punk, hippy looks, Mods etc.

My take is this.

In considering what to wear there are two axis – one is the authority/approachability axis. The other is the standing out/fitting in axis. Let’s say we work in a senior role in the City. We want an authority look, but we also want to fit in. So our outfits would be in the top right hand corner. We might choose a dark grey suit, white shirt and a sober tie, with black classic shoes and belt. Now if that man wanted to stand out, without endangering his authority he might chose a beautiful silk tie. He might ask his tailor for red silk linings. He may choose an up to the minute shoe  or spectacle designer. The standing out is very subtle – just enough so that the watcher knows you have style and an interest in the arts, for example.

Take the other end of the spectrum. We teach in a primary school teacher. We need to be approachable, with enough authority to make parents and children listen. But we want to be much closer to the lower end of the square. Let’s say she wants to fit in. She might choose black trousers and shoes, with a blue M&S short sleeved T-shirt, with a cardigan if it gets cold. A stand out colleague on the other hand wears 1980s colourful jumpers she buys at the Charity shop and always wears green trainers. Wardrobe personality works alongside these choices. For example the classic and natural dressers don’t want to stand out too much, whereas a Dramatic or Romantic dresser is more “showy”. In addition being different from the majority of people you work amongst, due to gender, race or disability, may mean you stand out more than you want to. For myself (in a sector and level that is male dominated) I embrace the standing out and play with it in my dress. As I will never fit in I sometimes dress ultra-feminine in order to make a point. Other times I go for a stylish androgynous look which also makes me stand out! Anyway I find this “Style Axis” quite helpful.

Fabrickated Style Axis
The Style Axis

So where does Norm Core fit in? It is quite a slippery concept. If you want to fit in completely you need to wear what everyone else is wearing. This means you are part of 95% of the population. Most people dress to blend in – the fashion they are following is the norm. For example this would be the entirely boring skinny jeans, grey jumper, flat dark shoes, long hair that nearly every young woman wears in London today. Adolescents in particular often feel the need to fit in most acutely – comfort with being different takes a while to accept I would suggest. For many of us being “cool” meant setting, rather than following trends – historically I would include Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli and the Duchess of Windsor – more recently Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Lady GaGa.

Norm Core is trying to create a way of dressing that is at once cool and also normal and boring.

An architect friend refers to the Georgian and Victorian architecture of London as being “like wallpaper”. He means it is so “boringly normal” that we don’t really register it. But it is also beautiful and functional. Much modern architecture, in its quest for invention and fame makes the mistake of standing out too much – looking garish, or ugly or ridiculous. And innovative styles are not necessarily fit for purpose. In the picture below the doors are all blue (implying a single landlord) but often, despite there being no rule that says it, we paint our doors black. Norm core.

London's Georgian streetscap
London’s Georgian streetscape (Andrew Abbot)

It’s the same with clothes. Norm core is a desire to move away from the exhausting habit of trying to set or follow the latest trend. Yet the big brands are all doing Norm Core, from Uniqlo to Karl Lagerfeld. Super-lux is surely just the boring/normal shell suit/elasticated pants/hoody/sweat shirt redefined (and re-priced), made of better fabrics and marketed well.

The difference between how we actually dress and how the magazines and blogs suggest we should dress has always gaped. There are a sub group of people who wear funny hats and handbags, red lipstick, vintage shoes etc and stand around in New York, London, Mumbai or Milan hoping to be photographed for a street style blog. Most of us would feel overdressed and actually uncomfortable like this. It looks like you are trying to hard if you stagger on your high heels, or have to keep pulling down your body con dress (and your Spanx’s make you sweat). Look at how some of our top designers dress – they can’t compete with the 10 foot models, so they just wear comfortable clothes.

Sarah Burton
Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen

Where would I go with this? Well I fully understand the desire to fit in, but I love character, personality and individualism. I like to see someone’s interpretation and style. When I see someone on the tube, or at work, who has just made a bit of effort – put a couple of things together – a scarf and a blouse for example – in an interesting and exciting way – my heart gives a little leap. Mary, who works with me, often wears beige trousers with a little sludgy jumper and flat shoes. But she has great hair, interesting accessories and such a great sense of style that she always looks amazing. This is how I would interpret Carine Roitfeld’s idea of  “the importance of establishing a solid, classical wardrobe with simple twists”. Just wearing boring clothes is boring for the viewer, and to my mind a little philistine like saying you would never eat foreign food, or you don’t like modern art. Black poloneck with jeans = norm core – interesting silver necklace, vintage silk scarf or patina’ed brown brogues is the little twist,









11 Responses

  1. SJ Kurtz

    My two teen boys almost illustrate this. The elder, in college, is a person who dresses to fit in. The younger, still in high school, dresses to stand out. They are both thrift shoppers, and enjoy the thrill of the hunt together, and have learned the other’s tastes pretty well, so it’s not competition or showing off how much they’ve spent. They are both pretty sharp dressers, but the ‘fit in’ one is a little insecure about his place, the ‘stand out’ is very secure in his.
    Neither one seem to care about the authority/approachability axis.

  2. Sam

    This is a really interesting post Kate. I must admit whilst I aspire to “stand out” I more often than not end up looking the same as everyone else, particularly in my work wear. I need to focus on addressing this!

  3. felicia

    Interesting post Kate. I suppose the authority — approachability axis pertains to work clothing only. What do you think about adding another axis, the ostentatious — understated axis. If someone dresses to stand out, they may well do so ostentatiously, and the result will not be particularly pleasant. But if standing out is simply a by-product of them following their own individual style, then they’re going to have an understated look, I think. I’m aiming for following my own sense of style, but also being understated. I’m not that comfortable standing out. I quit sewing in the early ’80s partly because I sewed a couple of items that were gorgeous, but that I couldn’t bring myself to wear because I would have stood out too much (care for a pale yellow raw silk jumpsuit??) I would say I’m still struggling.

  4. eimear

    Had to laugh reading Felicias comment on the yellow jumpsuit, my sister made a crazy knitted dress when I was 16 and I wore it out one night but had 2nd thoughts and kept my coat on – hows that for chicken! I also was just thinking how dressing for myself evolves this morning , from sewing to be ‘original’ as a teen, to a brief political anti-fashion in my early 20s, to store-bought after… and now I am sewing for myself I find I am more deliberate and sure of what I make -personally I prefer soft tailoring that doesn’t date (I have an old kimono top I adore and was horrified at a party to be told ‘its so fashionable now’), and really never much liked lapels or fussy detail, but I am not great on accessories (hate jangly things) so I tend to focus on simple shapes in strong colours. The discipline and irony of the norm core doesn’t work for me. while I appreciate the minimal aesthetic, deep down I know if I was wearing it, I would be hankering after adding red sequined pumps

  5. Su

    Your take on this is interesting Kate. The first articles I saw about normcore pictured top film stars who had an obvious reason to blend in and disappear, not so appealing to us everyday mortals as you say. There was also an element of disguising wealth (like the estuary English fad?) while still subtly declaring it – so the clothes were made from luxurious fabrics by an expensive brand.
    The new French version sounds far more interesting, beautifully cut understated clothes, but as you suggested enlivened with a lovely necklace or other accessory.
    Apologies by the way, for somehow getting mixed up with a famous blogger, I’m afraid I’m not Sewstyled.

  6. marcy harriell | oonaballoona

    Great post! I love to see people stand out, but more than that, I love to see them comfortable in their skin and clothing, whether that’s a party dress or khakis. (Personally, though, khakis are my sworn enemy.)

    I’ve accepted that I’ll usually be overdressed & happy, but that said: my husband and I have both noticed that people (non-sewing people) seem to be hesitant to engage with me when we’re out–until I holler and smile enough to put them at ease. We’ve wondered if my style is a factor– maybe I’m on the wrong end of approachability! I wonder where your giant circle dress fits in…

  7. Lynn Mally

    Yesterday, the New York Times said that Norm Core was over. Whew. And some of us were just finding out what it was! Personally I like to “stand out” with very subtle details, like interesting fabric. Unless you look hard, I don’t stand out at all.

  8. Mary

    I am comfortable wearing garments with simple lines and few embellishments. But I have to wear a color. I could never swan around in an all black or all grey ensemble. My outfit may be very plain but the fabric and construction will be top quality and I always wear a scarf or jewelry to complete the look. My version of norm core is to not wear the same type of garment every day but to wear the same style lines and always, always with color.

  9. Stephanie

    This is interesting. I have never thought about clothing in terms of these two axes, although there is something to this. I can see how I try to navigate the authority/approachability axis.

    I usually think about clothing in terms of degrees of sophistication and have often thought about how clothing is connected to status, which is something I absorbed from my paternal grandmother. I think I aim for personalized but at least somewhat sophisticated (by my own metric). Not sure I get there, but I do try! I abhor big labels, especially on handbags. I have never understood why someone would pay to carry LV all over their bag. I guess I missed the conspicuous consumption gene, although I like the subtle version of this that comes from quality materials and nice cuts and good shoes.

  10. Anne

    When I worked, the authority/approachability axis was sometimes difficult to negotiate. My job had a very large clinical component and at one time a significant management component too. The children and their families would have been put off by clothing appropriate for my management role, yet people have expectations of what a hospital consultant should wear – they do expect a degree of authority. Turning up to an important meeting in my day to day clinic attire just wouldn’t have worked. I found it easier in time, particularly after I decided to retire and modified my work

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