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Dressed down: Welcome 'normcore', the latest fashion buzzword

An unbranded approach to attire whose adherents resemble bewildered Icelandic exchange students, circa 1984

Paging all male readers, especially those who are wilfully and violently indifferent to fashion, which, I suspect, is pretty much all of you. (No offence.) I have a surprise announcement: you are now, at this particular moment in history, whether you like it or not, at the very apex of style. You are normcore.

Normcore is grey tracksuit bottoms pretending to be trousers. Normcore is a seen-better-days faun-coloured golf knit. Normcore is an unlogoed trainer. Normcore is the opposite of wearing a pair of white patent-leather bejewelled Versace assless chaps.

Normcore knows nothing of fluorescent-studded Louboutin sneakers. Normcore is safe. Normcore is samey. The normcore look is a knowing piss-take of the heterosexual male’s desperate desire to be sartorially unremarkable. Normcore is not brave or butch or swaggering. Normcore is about dressing like a mild-mannered mental patient or a bewildered Icelandic exchange student circa 1984.

The normcore phenomenon was identified by a trend-forecasting company named K-Hole and then called out by New York mag in February.

It would be easy, based on the flurry of subsequent articles, to come away with the impression that normcore is a bogus flash-in-the-pan niblet of seasonal fashion ephemera. Au contraire. Normcore was a long time coming. Normcore is for real.

The idea, more or less, is that in an era that embraces the distinct, bespoke and quirky, the final fashion frontier is dressing like a big fat anonymous nobody. My first encounter with this new I-would-rather-die-than-wear-anything-flamboyant aesthetic occurred in 2012 when the Parisian designer Alexandre Mattiussi launched his menswear collection under the label AMI. The look was nonthreatening and tidy. These simple clothes – a camel-coloured blouson (pardon the un-normcoreness of “blouson” but there is no other option), a decent pair of slacks, an innocuous dad sweater – were stripped of any flourishes. Reflecting the name Ami, the brand identity was friendly and nonthreatening. This is one of the deceptive things about normcore.

It appears good-natured but, as I will illustrate to you, it can be deadly and venomous. This is the terrifying paradox of normcore.

The very nature of normcore – in which a trendy, goal-post-moving, fashion-obsessed bloke cunningly disguises himself so as to appear fashion-oblivious – makes it profoundly hazardous. Booby traps and potential landmines abound. Sorting the unwitting normcore dude from the intentional normcorer is one of many perils. Do not assume that the person before you is a normcore dude just because he is wearing squishy caramel-coloured Mephisto shoes and a fully buttoned cardigan with pockets. I found this out the hard way.

Last week, I complimented a female friend’s new beau on his normcore stylings. He had no idea what we was talking about. By the time we bumbled through an explanation – “it’s a nuanced anti-fashion look... for people who are... badly dressed... I mean... people who are disinclined to dress in a more overtly stylish manner”– he was thoroughly offended.

Even if a guy is, in fact, a genuine, card-carrying normcorer, it is best not to address him as such. Like hippies and punks and metrosexuals, normcore adherents are wary of declaring their affiliation with their group. Don’t argue with them. It’s best to just compliment your normcorer on his dusty, plum-coloured made-in-Romania anorak and leave it at that. If normcorers start to feel that they have been cornered or “busted” God only knows what they will come up with next. If they sense they have been “exposed” they will feel obliged to concoct some new and even more terrifyingly perverse mode of dressing.

While I am sensitive to the needs of the normcorporation and its flock, I must confess to a certain ambivalence. Normcore loathes the flashy, the parvenue, the nouveau riche and everything else I hold dear.

Normcore defenders would doubtlessly claim that simple clothes are more honest. Without the distracting bells and whistles of fashion, the real essence of an individual is permitted to shine.

Though I applaud the optimism inherent in this point of view, I am concerned that the defenders might be overestimating the shine potential of the average dude. Most of us need all the packaging and promotion we can get.

For those earnest sweatpanted readers who find themselves unwittingly caught up in this fashion madness, I have the following advice: stay calm. Don’t freak out. Do not attempt to normcordon yourself off from the trendy normcorers. Do not attempt to distance yourself by running out and buying a pair of white patent-leather bejewelled Versace assless chaps.

Why should you change your spots? The comfy, nondescript, low-key clothes you are wearing are authentically yours, which is more than can be said for the normcore crew. They are just faking it. You are the real deal. So enjoy the spotlight. This is your moment.

A version of this article appeared on Slate.com