Clad in a denim-on-denim ensemble, a girl walks down the bustling streets of Ann Arbor. She’s wearing earphones and the clash of drums in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” seems to eradicate the chaos that surrounds her. Her getup is anything but form-fitting. The oversized jean jacket and the Adidas sneakers create a unisex style while her accent braids keep the look feminine. There is nothing flashy about her, yet people can’t help but stare because this isn’t the ’90s. This took place yesterday.
I could roll my eyes at the scene and comment on how hard the girl is trying to seem “grunge,” but I’ve already drank the Kool Aid. Bootcut jeans and “dad jeans” are back in stores such as Lucky and The Gap, and jean jackets have had a full-on resurgence among the Generation Z kids that missed their last heyday. Stan Smiths and vintage Adidas, New Balance and Nike sneakers have taken the streets by storm. Denim-on-denim is acceptable once again. Multiple hoops adorn women’s ears, turtlenecks have become the standard sweater and flannel shirts are inescapable. Many would label these style choices as the epitome of “white ’90s dad” attire, so why would young people be championing them?
The answer involves both psychology and stylistic choices. The style is called Normcore, a hybrid of “normal” and “hardcore.” The New York Times has defined it as “a fashion movement in which scruffy young urbanites swear off the tired street-style clichés of the last decade — skinny jeans, wallet chains, flannel shirts — in favor of a less-ironic embrace of bland, suburban anti-fashion attire.” Normcore is a unisex style that works hard to embody “normal” and “simple” through unpretentious clothing and basic colors. There are no blouses or neckties. There are no complex patterns or tight fits. It’s not meant to stand out, and the biggest brand these urbanites shop is The Gap.
Fashion trends are often driven by young people choosing new ways to express themselves, and often the sentiment is a rejection of what was there before. The cynics among us will blame the market economy and say that trends keep the retail sector humming and second hand stores flush with new cast-offs. With Normcore, I choose to see something less cynical in fashion trends. I see something more creative: A generation slowly moving into the world of our parents claiming its independence and asserting its perspective.
But why embrace the styles of what many considered one of the blandest eras in the history of fashion? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ’90s was arguably one of the most stable and uncontroversial decades in modern US history, a clear contrast to the political and social volatility that our society finds itself in today. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that many young trendsetters are striving for a generic aesthetic, rather than name-brand and highly stylized trends. I can’t help but see parallels to a rejection of the lines of demarcation that have recently marked our national landscape. The euphoria of being part of a group is gone.
The key trendsetters here are millennials, a group often maligned for feeling entitled. Alternatively, millennials can be seen as individualists who feel they have the power to make change when they see that their society is not living up to its potential. They’ve been developing platforms to express themselves through social media, and this is simply another platform. In this way, Normcore should not be viewed as another eye-rolling attempt by many of us to show that we’re “retro,” but that we are, in fact, proactive.
Of course, my armchair psychological analysis may not apply to all — maybe people just really liked the outfit that Elaine wore in that “Seinfeld” episode they binge-watched last night.