Remember the Amazon Coat? The drab, pseudo-stylish parka available on Amazon for $140 that last winter came to adorn 75 percent of mothers on the Upper East Side? For a time, owning an Amazon Coat one was like knowing a secret; there is cultural capital in finding a garment that outsmarts the status quo. But once the market became saturated with awareness of the coat, which is made not by Amazon but by the Chinese company Orolay, wearing one became a signifier of trying too hard to not be trying, of pantomiming authenticity — of being a poser.
The phenomenon of the Amazon Coat fits into a theory I’ve been developing: that we have entered the age of post-normcore, in which there exists one product in every category amazing enough to be the only thing we own in that category.
Post-normcore, more than our sartorial choices, is illustrated by how companies sell us shit.
But let’s rewind a bit before we get too far into it. Normcore, of course, is the tongue-in-cheek neologism first brought into wider consciousness in 2013 by the trend-forecasting group K-Hole. Normcore is a celebration of Seinfeld-era basics — high-waisted Levis, chunky sneakers, windbreakers, a polo shirt from The Gap. “Normcore is about authenticity,” wrote Max Grobe of High Snobiety. “It’s a rejection of extravagance. It’s about subverting any notion of edginess.” The term soon cemented itself in the zeitgeist, bewildering national newspapers, and inspiring high-fashion runways until a post-Trump America redirected its hearts to athleisure and streetwear.
If normcore told us anything, it was that our branding doesn’t define us. Post-normcore, however, tells us that our branding defines us, but it also doesn’t, but it also does. Post-normcore, more than our sartorial choices, is illustrated by how companies sell us shit — more specifically, how the stuff they sell us will make us more virtuous without any real proof that the stuff itself is more virtuously made or sold. It’s become a joke that every disrupting startup actually gentrifies the market, whether it hawks blankets and sheets, athleisure, tampons, razors, leggings, dog toys, snacks, home-cooked dinners, or frozen smoothies, but this is real, and it happens visually: spare, pastel-colored advertisements that not only sell a product but want us to be on a first-name basis with the people who are selling us that product.
There’s Ritual, the vitamin company that wants you to be on a first-name basis with Chris who sources your vitamins’ biotin, or Jonathan and Ren who handle the magnesium. Or Function, which personalizes your shampoo and conditioner specifically for your hair type, in whichever pastel colors you pick. Or scroll through pictures of one of Everlane’s factories to see the “red-orange work coats on the employees” that “seemed fitting for the warm atmosphere in the building” as those employees assemble the brand’s slingbacks. By now, the language of these advertisements is ingrained into our social-media mottled minds: Transparency. All-natural. Unique. Doing things.
Post-normcore blurs the line between luxury and utilitarian products by marketing utilitarian products as luxury ones, and with luxury prices. Most “disruptive” startups — from the electric-toothbrush maker Quip to the now-ubiquitous Tech-bro-shoe-of-choice Allbirds — want to convince customers (Millennials) that what they make is the only version of a thing you and your friends want to buy. It’s all very confusing: signature items as cultural signifiers that yearn to be just like everything else.
On the opposite side of the post-normcore coin is Brujas, the Bronx-born autonomous fashion collective most popular for its brightly colored streetwear. Brujas, which is available online and in a few physical stores, takes branding to new levels with the unapologetic political messaging of its clothes — items currently on sale include a made-to-order sweatsuit that bears the words “Toxic Shock Administration” ($911; both as a joke and because its decals are hand-sewn) and long-sleeved T-shirt that says “Brujas Abolish ICE” ($42). Brujas doesn’t boast about its sustainability or transparent business practices; it approaches fashion more from the angle of critical theory than pure economics. (In an email, one of Bruja’s co-founders, Arianna Gil, noted that the brand lists many of its suppliers on its website.) It releases syllabi with its collections — one edition assigns Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” and a chapter from The Fire Next Time — and publishes a zine; it donates some profits to prisoners’ commissaries. Gil told Racked that the group figures capitalism is fucked so, as Anna Furman wrote, “it might as well use its relative amount of power to subversive ends.” It’s an applaudable mission, but we’ve seen many times in recent years how the idea of activism via a sloganeered T-shirt can have less of an impact than the people who wear it might want it to.
For all its visual specificity, normcore can fall into the “no true Scotsman fallacy” — for something to be normcore, it must embrace both individuality and conformity. This baked-in adaptability goes both ways: is something normcore because you’re using signifiers to appeal to (or at least not offend) as many people as possible, or is something only normcore when its vagueness, as K-Hole’s Greg Fong once said, serves as “a really advanced way of presenting your identity is to be very in control of how little semiotic information what you wear contains”? The “normal” part of normcore, however, clearly implies a standard to align ourselves with. It asks who is in power (in normcore’s case, let’s remember that it was Obama) and to define what we are in contrast to what we are not.
It’s easier said and done when your country’s leader is not a fascist. Post-normcore is taking hold of us in a non-ironic world, as populism rises on the left and the right, as Millennials and Zoomers embrace community but also individuality. Post-normcore is the death rattle of our struggle to reconcile not just consumerism, individuality, and populism. It’s the zombification of culture, where everyone is wearing a Glossier Cloud Paint and listening to Billie Eilish and eating Sweetgreen and it means nothing, and also something, but in a deeper way, nothing.
Consumption now inhabits our daily experiences. All of our memes are now successful organic viral marketing, wow this blew up, check out my SoundCloud. Even our work is actually consumption now. In her book Made in Brooklyn, Amanda Wasielewski argues that until artisan goods can compete in the marketplace with conventionally made products, even professional labor like freelance creative work and artisan jewelry is a form of consumption. She writes:
The Maker Movement is a total conquest of the concept of production within the paradigm of consumption, subsuming labor within leisure… Maker Movement products are not replacing mass-produced products from overseas, nor is that their goal. The motivation for makers is, rather, one that resonates with consumer culture: the expression of individual identity and creativity… They argue that makerism and the revolution in digital production technology finally allowed the proletariat to seize the means of production. This continual reference to Marx, a cheerful declaration of the end of class conflict, disguises the neoliberal underpinnings of the Maker Movement.
If even entire professions can be bogus masquerades, how many times does someone have to tell us there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism?
As a post on the blog recto/verso said of normcore: “[It] is a model and mode of escaping this logic and basing its motto on the absence of difference. When the difference is the norm, the norm becomes the difference and, even if the act is led by empathy, it does not exclude its dependence from the power.” Normcore was reformist, not abolitionist. But hasn’t every generation from the Boomers to Gen X sold us consumption as rebellion? The K-Hole trend report that initially birthed Normcore said “making one choice today and a conflicting choice tomorrow doesn’t make you a hypocrite. It just makes you complex.” How complex or revolutionary can switching from individuality to conformity be? But maybe normcore never promised to solve our problems, just how to get dressed in the morning. And maybe post-normcore isn't promising to solve our problems, just promising to give us one less outfit choice.
Maybe, in the end, we’re just tired and want to wear a plain T-shirt we don’t have to talk about, and maybe no one else even cares what T-shirt we wear at all.
[Note: A previous version of this piece misattributed a quote from an article about Brujas to a source rather than the story’s author.]