In the last few weeks, the fashion segment of the Internet has gone all a-buzz over new term “Normcore.” Normal, everyday, clothing is apparently showing up in downtown Manhattan—gasp! Like many trendy terms, it’s not really so new: back in the nineties and early oughts, Gap ruled the retail world with posters showing celebrities and artists wearing t-shirts and jeans available at the local mall store. “Normcore” is just the leading edge of the utterly-predicable 20-year fashion industry pendulum swing.
It also perhaps signals a cultural shift away from snobbery and into embracing roots. One of the most popular posts on the New York Times’s website last year celebrated regional accents (apparently Philadelphians are allowed to talk like Philadelphians again).
An analogue to this fashion trend has been occuring among Friends for a little while now. The “New Plain” discussion have revolved around reclaiming an attitude, not a uniform.
If you read the old Quaker guide books (called “Books of Discipline” then, now more often called “Faith and Practice”), you’ll see that unlike other plain-dressing American groups like the Amish, Quakers didn’t intend their clothes to be a uniform showing group conformity. Instead, plainness is framed in terms of interior motivations. Avoiding fashion trends helped Friends remember that they were all equal before God. It also spoke to our continuing testimony of integrity, in that Friends were to dress the same way in different contexts and so vouchsafe for a single identity.
When I began feeling the tug of a leading toward plainness it was for what I began calling “Sears Plain,” indicating that I wore clothes that I could find in any box store or mall. I developed a low-maintenance approach to fashion that freed up my time from shopping and the morning dressing ritual. Modern plainness can lesson the temptation to show off in in clothes and it can reduce the overall wardrobe size and thus reduce our impact on the environment and with exploited labor. But all this is nothing new and it never really disappeared. If you looked around a room of modern Quakers you’ll often see a trend of sartorial boringness; I was simply naming this and putting it in the context of our tradition.
Over time I found that these motivations were more prevalent in the wider culture, especially in the minimalist techie scene. Steve Jobs famously sported a uniform of black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance sneakers (explained in 2011). In a 2012 profile, Barack Obama talked about limiting his clothes to two colors of suits so that he could free up his decision-making energies on more important issues (I wrote about his fashion in “Plain like Barack“).
Non-celebrities also seem interested in working out their relationship with fashion. My articles on modern plainness have always been a big draw on my blog. While my fellow Quakers are sometimes mildly embarrassed by our historic peculiarities, outsiders often eat this stuff up. They’re looking for what the techies would call “life hacks” that can help them prioritize life essentials. If we can communicate our values in a real way that isn’t propped by appeals to the authority of tradition, then we can reach these seekers.
So now that “Normcore” is appearing in places like Huffington Post , the New York Times and fashion magazines, will Friends be able to talk more about it? Do we still have a collective witness in regards to the materialism and ego-centricity of fashion marketing?