If Mark Zuckerberg is ‘normcore’, I’d rather be Prince Philip
What was once regarded as an 'absence of style' in the wardrobes of straight, cis white men is starting to be seen as a deliberate fashion statement, writes Graham Wood
One of the less serious (but nonetheless real) consequences of the pandemic has been the damage it’s done to the way we dress. Will we ever recover from more than a year of working from home (WFH) leisurewear?
Our “chosen skins”, as fashion writer Lauren Bravo calls our clothing, seem to have developed into an endless parade of stretched and baggy tracksuit pants and sweaters.
The problem, I suspect, stems from the public, social dimension of our clothes — our need to use them to communicate. Bereft of the requirement to actually convey anything to anyone about ourselves while we’ve been holed up at home, our clothing has become strangely uncommunicative.
My wife read a passage out loud to me the other day from Bravo’s book, How to Break Up with Fast Fashion. I went back and found it: “From drag queens and club kids to religious symbols and slogan tees, style has long been used as an outward expression of our inner lives, especially vital to anyone who feels as though they exist on the fringes of society,” she writes.
And then the bit that stuck with me: “There’s a reason straight, cis white men aren’t the most renowned shopaholics among us.” As a straight, cis white man, I suppose I would have to admit that it’s true — we’re not exactly renowned for putting in a lot of effort when we get dressed.
The fashion industry is designed to torment women more than men because women are more invested in the transformational power of clothing
Bravo seems to be suggesting that the reason we make so little effort with what we wear is that we’re complacent in our identities. The fashion industry, she suggests, is designed to torment women more than men because women are more invested in the transformational power of clothing; men aren’t trying to change themselves “from the outside in”, or create a suit of armour, or get it just right.
The implication seems to be that men’s sense of self is so untroubled that we find very little need to try to express ourselves or our identities through our clothing. That’s the lot of the more culturally/socially/economically marginalised, who are almost forced to assert their presence — their very being — through the clothes on their backs, or risk being invisible.
“Straight, cis white men” are supposed, in this argument, to have such fully formed and settled identities that it never even occurs to us to try and express it. Perhaps our supposed inability even to perceive our own identity as an identity — the dominant culture’s habit of seeing itself as some sort of default setting for the rest of humanity’s aspirations — makes it impossible for us to even figure out what we might be trying to express.
The ideal, so often quoted in men’s fashion magazines, is still a certain lack of self-consciousness. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the British couturier (and long-time dressmaker to the queen) Hardy Amies quoted: “A man should look as if he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them.” (“You should wear your clothes and not let your clothes wear you,” is another.)
Even in its moments of introspection, straight, cis white fashion remains convinced of the attractiveness of ease with oneself and others. It falls to those who need to grapple with and express a peripheral identity in the public sphere, however, to be inventive and ultimately drive the evolution of style (and of course, the endless consumption on which the fashion industry thrives).
Meanwhile, the straight, cis white aspiration to look at home in a tux, seems to have devolved into a demoralising Zuckerberginess, a degraded attempt to indicate the same kind of ease with oneself, but without even a hint of panache.
This silicon-valley inspired casualwear is also an attempt to signal substance over style, but it has become so extreme in its dullness that it’s actually been taken up in certain fashion circles as a self-conscious expression of something: “normcore”.
Maybe the fact that this mode of dress now had a name and is a “thing” is a consequence of the invisible being made visible. The straight, cis white male attempt to go under the radar is starting to be seen not as an absence of style, or as a non-style, but very definitely as a particular style and expression.
Normcore has become a self-reflexive style. It’s no longer invisible or uncontested; it’s being questioned
When the fashionista advocates of normcore wear the dad-kit they’re not going under the radar. They’re consciously shining a light on the supposedly neutral to say something about neutrality. It has become a self-reflexive style. It’s no longer invisible or uncontested; it’s being questioned.
Now, I can’t see many of the dads on the school run — particularly after a year of wearing their WFH attire — being troubled by what’s happening in some obscure, culturally meta-critical niche of the fashion world, but it’s a clear sign that the ideal of dressing with unselfconsciousness is being questioned. It’s a sign of hope that we have become conscious of the supposedly unconscious, and in that lie the seeds of change.
Or maybe it’s a sign that the rest of the world, dressing like a bunch of normcore dads during lockdown, have begun to discover the true wretchedness of the style — the anxiety and insecurity at the heart of it that makes you want to be invisible, the horror of the secret knowledge that you’re not Cary Grant or Prince Philip, rather than smug complacency — and they would rather choose the torments of fashion.