Normcore and the grown woman

On a post showing the real women of Montréal, Dr. V.O. commented,
"On the topic of style, I'm wondering what you think of fall's continued elaborations of "normcore" looks (which you touched on in June) and the so-called "mom chic" that one sees at COS, Emerson Fry, and other hip brands. I find it interesting anthropologically b/c of its play with generation-bending versus other kinds of boundary crossing."

Dr. V.O. finds many things anthropologically interesting because she is an anthropologist, and she kindly encourages my interest in her field.

Normcore is the appropriation of classic, functional items by people of an age group more commonly associated with trend-driven buying: teens and young adults. Those items are worn to convey a non-consumerist position or at least preferences toward the low-key and lasting; what one trend-forecasting company called "the desire to be blank", while the Gap's current ads urge customers to "Dress Normal".

A fifty year old woman in an L.L. Bean Bayside twill skirt with its hidden comfort waist is not deliberately normcore, but her 20 year old niece in the same skirt is. 

Many young adults have no desire to own separate wardrobes for work and leisure. Normcare items are flexible and androgenous: fleece tops, cotton turtlenecks, sweat pants, oxford cloth button-downs. The cut is American ample; this is not APC. Barring a wedding, a normcore devotée has it covered with only a few dozen items.

Normcore over 50 

On a mature woman with an eye for colour and proportion, selected normcore pieces can blend with a preppy, snappy wardrobe, but she has certain shoals to navigate if she wants to look put-together rather than merely dressed.

Above: Inès de la Fressagne in rolled Levis, a white shirt, brown loafers: many old friends but— check the wide gold cuff and bracelet, the dark bra (which personally I would not do, but she's the icon here). C'est la manière, ma chère. Apparently she also carries a personalized L.L. Bean tote.

In the Gap's campaign, Anjelica Huston wears a more generic white shirt, wisely tarted up with assertive makeup, a dramatic brunette bob, what looks like a big emerald, and Michael K. Williams:

Man, I feel like a camper

I always enjoy Lands' End's Apostrophe quarterly, which tweaks normcore so much I have actually bought a few pieces (though certain items are just hopeless.) With any normcore vendor (typically a supplier to outdoor enthusiasts: Bean, Eddie Bauer, Woolrich, Orvis), you have to be very selective and eschew an adjustée fit, or have them tailored.

But here be dragons. Despite the appeal of a cabled sweater or duffle coat, I categorically reject the most egregious normcore signifiers, usually anything in which you could portage a canoe: Tilley rain hats, Crocs clogs, pants that zip off to shorts, and one-size fits all, except on expeditions

Also: woman of 50+ must not sleep in an athletic department t-shirt. Even alone. Especially if alone.

Why? Because such choices decrease your splendid, wholly-lived, majestic feminine mojo.  

An entire ensemble built of normcore sturditude moves into the territory my friend Beth, quoting one of her friends, calls "L.L. Bean dumpywear".  

So my Bean marinière gets a diamond and silver cuff and a big ring. I'd enjoy hearing how you move normal into more original expressions.


Anonymous said…
I had no idea there was a 'name' for those awful, unfeminine, generic clothes that I never buy! Having tried once and spent the same price in alterations, I never ventured there again. Over priced, not well made and screaming "I give up", I will not secumb. Wait for the really exceptional pieces to go on sale-sale, even if it means you'll wear them next season. Stay strong.
Bunny said…
I so appreciater and respect you views on fashion for those over fifty. Totally agree with your viewpoints. I do think you can't beat a crisp white shirt, upturned collar, IRONED chinos or well fitting jeans, and jewelry with attitude. It's a classic look flattering to nearly all.

"awful, unfeminine, generic clothes", however, from the last poster, is a pretty adequate description of the mook of most of these classics that are unfortunately worn without a bit of glam.
Susan B said…
A lot of what's being touted as "normcore" just looks downright frumpy to me. And yes, the overall impression is different on a 20-year-old than a 50-something. I wouldn't call Ines' outfit "normcore" despite the Levi's...that shirt is tailored and as you noted, there are all of the personal touches. And Angelica has the charisma to make a flour sack look avant-garde. I'm all for good quality basics, but need some zhush too. I'm finding lately that interesting shoes and jewelry are the best way to take simple pieces up a few notches.
frugalscholar said…
I knew something was up when I saw a sign at the Buffalo Exchange:" we need high waisted jeans." I.E. mom jeans in their new incarnation!

Two models/actresses tall and thin in heavily styled and photoshopped pictures...not what most of us look like.

The LLBean catalogue models--much younger--give a better idea of what these clothes look like on.
Susan said…
I have noticed the trend of the dark bra under a transparent or semi-transparent blouse. I've even seen this on 50+ women. I don't admire the look. At first I thought they had not realized what they were wearing!

I agree with Frugal Scholar that most of us do not look great in this sort of clothing. It can come off as quite frumpy unless you are very tall, very slim and etc.

I wish I had une femme's love for interesting shoes!
Madame Là-bas said…
I was just down to Washington State with my 83 year old mother who has gone very Normcore in the last 10 years. Perhaps in an effort to avoid "old lady". It seems so unfeminine but she can avoid the frustration of shopping by frequenting Eddie Bauer and Bass.
Actually, a lot of the "normcore" I see is a lot uglier than the examples Duchesse has shown. Things like hideous cargo shorts in ugly garish colours, and of course hoodies and fleece zip tops (I do sometimes wear the latter at home, as a third layer).

Actually I wouldn't mind that skirt, in the dark red on sale, but that is because it has pockets!

Huston and Williams are both sexy "persons of a certain age"...
I have never heard of normcore!
I dressed like most of the young moms in our peer group way back in the day and in high school we had a "uniform" or a dress code where we all wore the same brand of jeans with suede desert boots and peasant blouses.
Now I feel I can branch out with my clothes but they revolve around simple classics and lots of black and grey.
I would not be inclined to wear a black or dark bra under a white shirt as I do not like drawing attention to my ample "assets!"
Normcore must be a bit like being a Stepford Wife!
Ines and Angelica are gorgeous examples of mature women...they both exude health and confidence, they wear clothes with panache and in classic styles. If that is Normcore I approve.
LauraH said…
As usual, trends that might work on a 20something are not the same on me. I love LL Bean for flannel dressing gowns (a must have in Toronto right now), cargo pants and t shirts when you're hanging out with the 4 year old crowd. Other than that it's a real crap shoot. I've tried a number of styles and sent a lot of stuff back. When they say 'basic', well, it really is. With your help and une femme's I've decided on simple pants in nice fabrics, linen shirts (hot weather), cashmere (cold weather), clean lines and comfort. A beautiful scarf, some jewellery, stylish shoes to dress it up a little.
LPC said…
Even the young ones - who attempt style - wear this stuff with a little flair. The chambray shirt - ironed. The jeans - frayed a tad or worn short, with another standard, Clark's desert boots.

I just put on chandelier earrings and hope the long gray braid is a pretty clear statement that I'm doing this all on purpose. Which is how I think of style - whether it's to my liking or not.
Anonymous said…
"dumpy wear" gets this year's award for Best Original Terminology!

--Catbird Farm
Beth said…
Well, I must give my friend Megan the nod for coining that memorable phrase!

When I left Vermont after 30 years and moved to Montreal, I also left this type of clothing mercifully behind. I guess it does suit a certain outdoorsy lifestyle, in which a day might hold an informal meeting, a stop at the farmer's market on the way home, bringing in some wood for the woodstove, and cooking dinner, but I never felt good in those clothes even though it was what nearly everyone wore: a uniform by any other name. To me this level of shapelessness or "relaxed fit" implied not only discomfort with the feminine body, but unease with expressing personal style, and I was very glad to escape that ethos, much as I loved many other aspects of living there.
Duchesse said…
Anon@ 8:01: It's not that I find most normcare goods overpriced- it's dull if not styled with less generic pieces. And I also find some of the hip brands overpriced. I agree that it's worth waiting for what makes you enjoy wearing something.

Bunny: Especially pearls? ;)

une femme: I agree,the shirt has beautiful tailoring, and that gold cuff is TDF!

frugal: Though I am never without several Bean sailor shirts and a pair of red sheepskin mocs (as house slippers) most of it is not swoon worthy!

Susan: Yes, Pseu is the queen of shoe spotting!

lagatta: From what I read, normcore does not include garish colour, rather, it heads toward the sea of neutrals. And you are right, there is a lot of ugly clothing around that is not normcore.

LauaH: I'm with you, I buy that piped flannel nightshirt; in -20F what can you do?

LPC: I just saw a woman in periwinkle desert boots and want those badly! (Turns out she bought them in Australia in a vintage shop.)

Anonymous said…
I think the trick to normcore -- some of it at least; a lot of it is just plain dumpy, but, say, the skirt shown here -- is to wear one piece of it as a counterpoint to more creative stuff. Two pieces and you are your grandmother.
Anonymous said…
I don't have a problem with "normcore" even at 70. But they should Fit, Fit, Fit...and you need good posture, not just big jewelry, which looks "old-lady" when you are!
Simple, perfectly fitting basics...may equal good taste, with good shoes and bags.
Duchesse said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duchesse said…
Anon@ 5:43: See commment from Anon@3:58. Good posture helps any style of clothing look better. Simple clothes come in many levels of quality. I'm ever more willing to invest in good fabric and find dye quality is not pleasing amid really cheap pieces.

"Big" is not a primary criterion for jewelry for me; I'm more interested in design and quality of materials. But I find too many grown women wear too-small, 'nice', generic jewelry. There is a lot of territory between small, safe scale and big honkin' stuff.
Anonymous said…
After reading this interesting post and all of the comments, I was reminded of the two decades I lived in the northwoods of Wisconsin. I remember being out somewhere, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt (the uniform of the area) and someone noticed my shiny red polished fingernails. That was my attempt at feeling feminine. He said, "Your hands don't match the rest of you."
Jill Ann said…
Laughing at "normcore"...I felt quite hip because I had to explain to my 19 year old daughter what it was (she'd never heard the term). I agree with others here that one piece, mixed with something more stylish, can be a good look. I did get the Land's End catalog last week, and found several items I really liked. Plaid shirts and pants! Very cute, and some nice coats (although I never need a coat, living in TX). Also very cute loafers, the classic marineres, and nice trim cable knit cardigans. I may order a piece or two.
Dr. V.O. said…
Duchesse, as always your analysis is perspicacious and creative. I remember thinking that American Apparel might have launched normcore with its sexploitative fetishistic selling of teenage girls wearing mom-ish styles. And norm core seems to be channeling classic Pierre Bourdieu sociology -- when moms started dressing like teens, then the teens had to distinguish themselves socially to keep cultural autonomy, and what better way than to appropriate their mothers' rejected styles.

As you point out so smartly, the successful chic normcore look always has a frumpiness escape hatch -- a hip accessory, a normative style cut slightly differently, the hint of sexy underwear peeking through. I love the select normcore pieces in my own wardrobe -- they always keep my outfit from looking like I'm trying too hard for "chic" or "glam" which in my experience is very aging on older women. For example, I like a good expensive belt with quality shiny hardware and a good watch vs. blingy jewelry these days. As my grandma aged she put on more jewelry, so I'm going the opposite. Thank you for taking on my question! N.B. I'm behind on reading so I apologize for not sending condolences earlier on the loss of your friend's wife; thank you for that beautiful and moving post.
Duchesse said…
foxandfinchantiques: So, which part prevailed? ;)

Jill Ann: The words "cute" and "nice" when any of us look at a catalog, might serve as a yellow caution light. (For some it will be a red light, but I personally like a "nice" cable knit and am avid about marinières). Too many "cute" items on a grown woman look out of place.

Dr. V.O.: I was eager for your response! You reminded me of my university roommate Renée, who visited home in '67 to find her mother (probably all of 40) in a miniskirt. She was appalled. Minis were supposed to be for •us•, not parents.

My own impulse is to encourage elderly women to wear good jewelry, not necessarily more, but distinctive. I adore 80-something women in big rings. Joan Burstein of Brown's (London) is the exemplar of that look- rather quiet good clothes (a lot of Marni) and assertive real jewelry.

Eleanorjane said…
I just hate basics. I can barely bring myself to buy them - ideally they have a bit of something extra to lift them from snores-ville.

For example, today my jeans are chocolate brown coated denim and my cardigan is bright fuchsia. I teamed this with a bright floral print scarf from Poland, a chocolate brown cape and mustard yellow handbag.
Duchesse said…
Eleanorjane: That sounds delicious!
Duchesse said…
Beth: When I lived in a rural community there was plenty of encouragement for that style! (I refused to wear fleece, but I do see its utility.) Living here, we see so much verve- even if I would not quite wear some of it, the visuals extend my awareness.
RoseAG said…
Normcore is right up my alley!

I spend a lot of time at the beach, which has a casual outdoorsy vibe year-round and the Normcore style fits right in when I'm not in clothing designed for water.

Places like LL Bean and Eddie Bauer and my favorite, The Gap - all offer pants in a variety of cuts so if you are willing to get your tape measure out you often can find things that fit.

It just goes to show that if you wait long enough fashion will come around to what you've always been.

By the way, don't you think the photo of Angelica Houston is a take on Pulp Fiction? That would be a movie that the target Millennial audience would be familiar with. Using Houston allows them to also catch Boomers who're happy to buy clothing cut in the Ample American sizing.
Duchesse said…
RoseAG: Since neither actor was in "Pulp Fiction", I don't see the reference myself, but I think you're on to something, as it is a noir-ish/retro set, to which boomers can relate, as well as to the 63 year old Huston. Young people are choosing generic, neutral, functional clothing as an anti-fashion statement, in the sense that fashion is quite concerned with currency.
HB said…
Lovely to be catching up on your writing after quite awhile - this is a topic perhaps oddly close to my heart. Heading out in the morning is never my happy time and I have to look stylish for work, so I rely on a fairly generic wardrobe of black skirts, leggings, and (frequently) a lands end knit tee. But! I always wear jewelry - a recent addiction is a long pair of silver dangles that I made in the studio - and a scarf or shawl. And a jacket or sweater to finish it off, with fantastic shoes. I think about colors and statement. Sometimes even just a great ring will change a look from "meh" to "oooo nice."

At some point in the past I think you posted about a friend who is petite but doesn't bow to the "rules" of dressing per the petite marketing. I was inspired by that and have been playing with proportion ever since. The typical norm core chino skirt and white shirt language make me look like a truck - all wrong for my proportions. I call it brick dressing. But a humongous shawl over a well fitting a-line skirt and top is one of my favorite ways of creating some interest that can move from one norm-y outfit to the next. Same for an outrageously long skirt, but keeping a nicely fit cardigan and top in play. Etc..
Duchesse said…
HB: The power of accessories! We would love to see our long silver dangles.
HB said…
I wouldn't know how to get dressed without accessories!
These are the earrings (sorry for the FB URL - I have not yet made a real web site for this work):
Duchesse said…
HB: Ohhh, beautiful! Please let us know when your website is up.
HB said…
Thank you so much! I will!
Currently March (or so) is my plan for a soft launch of some pieces. Will be doing a local event and am considering the best way to market online. Even though I know this from my career / day job, putting a business together and doing the creative work as well is a tough couple of tasks to do simultaneously.
Wendelah said…
I'm so behind with blog reading. For me, the best thing about norm core is feeling okay wearing the shoes I have to wear because of my foot issues: sneakers and Birkenstock and other admittedly not very pretty flat shoes. So I'm enjoying the moment, long may it last. I still really enjoy looking at fashion for its entertainment value but my style is pretty fixed: eclectic bohemian with a side of leather jacket. When my kind of style is in fashion, I stock up, otherwise no, thank you. The thing is, I've never worn crisp white shirts, expensive jewelry, high-heeled shoes or high-end designers. I don't strive for elegance or glamour because it's not who I am.

Aging is hard--at least it has been for me--and I think we have to allow for more than one way to do this difficult thing. LL Bean isn't awful or unfeminine or a sign of "giving up" to the thousands of their regular customers. Is it really necessary to insult other women's taste in order to assert our own? A little kindness and tolerance would be a welcome sight, especially in the over-fifty blogging community.
Duchesse said…
Wendeleh: I don;t really know how LL Bean customers feel about the clothes they buy there, but I ca nspeak for myself. When I open an LL bean box and take out my silk longjohns or sheepskin slippers, I feel a glow of pleasure and comfort. I do not, however, feel the same level or tone of pleasure that I get from unwrapping an Eric Bompard tangerine cashmere sweater or a pair of luscious pearl earrings.

If a blogger calls a particular vendor's styles dowdy, or unfeminine, that is their perspective- and you have yours. I hope you continue to "be who you are", secure in your own choices.

Actually I prefer bloggers who provide their perspective- including those with which I do not agree- to bloggers who hype free products they are given and link most of the time only to stores where sales earn them commissions.

Boyett-Brinkley said…
I didn't know about "normcore" until a couple of weeks ago -- always late to the party! I guess my preference leans toward this trend -- classic clothes, neutral colors -- comfort -- but I think it has to also be NOT sloppy, ironed, punctuated by some nice jewelry, shoes, bags, good grooming. I lean toward solid colors but like colorful accessories. I don't wear "statement" jewelry but rather meaningful pieces -- I am never without a "family" themed charm bracelet and my "family history" Pandora bracelet. I think that this "trend", if you will, isn't anything new -- it is just easy to put together and feel pulled together and, if done correctly, "dumpy" doesn't have to be a defining adjective.
Boyett-Brinkley said…
Wendelah -- well said. I, too, have foot/joint issues so my shoes sort of define everything I wear. I have been doing a lot of thinking since I first read about "normcore" a couple of weeks ago and I think the real issue here is being yourself and the best "yourself" you can be. I never have been one to buy into brands -- but I do appreciate quality. I try to buy basic but the best quality I can afford at the time. This sort of goes along with my ever-growing sense of minimalism. The point I am trying to make is that the person inside the clothes is so much more than the clothes. Everybody has a personal style and they should be free to express that style without criticism.

The posts with the most