It ended up in my feed, retweeted by my business partner, (whose grandmother just so happens to own a bookstore), but I’d wager , at 2,200+ retweets, this may be among the most popular things Kleon has written.
Because, on January 2nd, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his annual challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week. Every year Zukerberg takes on a new challenge to broaden his perspective and learn something about the world beyond Facebook. Last year’s challenge was writing a daily thank-you note, and the year before it was meeting someone new every day. This year’s challenge was crowd-sourced, and resulted in something bigger than just Zuckerberg’s own personal growth — an open challenge to anyone interested in reading 26 books in 2015, and discussing them in the Facebook community A Year Of Books.
At the same time, before the new year was even a week old, Céline launched their Spring 2015 campaign with Joan Didion as its poster girl:
Let’s talk about Céline’s just-debuted ad campaign featuring none other than immortal intellectual-and-otherwise dream girl Joan Didion. Did you just feel the collective intake of breath shared by every cool girl you know? Did you feel the pulse-quickening vibrations of every recent college grad and literature fan? Did you sense the earth trembling beneath your feet? Do you have two eyes and a heart?
Of all the celebrity fashion campaign appearances, who better to represent Philo’s ideals—a certain ease of wear, simplicity of line, clothes that are assured, structured yet fluid, decidedly for the woman on the move—than Didion, the original chronicler of heartfelt experience, both her own and others’? One whose perpetually Tumblr’d and tweeted packing list famously includes “2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards [and] 1 pullover sweater,” (an ethos Philo, who proudly advertises her own reliance on a personal “uniform,” would clearly understand); who understood fashion while relying on clothes that didn’t draw attention as much as prepare her for the task at hand.
We’ll be buying whatever Joan’s wearing.
In this unusual twist, Facebook found a 15th-century medium to champion, and Vogue breathlessly embraced an 80-year old literary icon as the new fashion It girl — all as part of the same trend.
See also: Ikea’s 2015 catalog campaign extolling the virtues of an analog, “bookbook” (TM) like it’s the next breakthrough in touch technology:
Maybe it’s something we’re learning about our new reality — books are the last, tangible refuge in a hypermediated world. In an age when everything is accessible, books are the most exclusive place you can go: it’s un-Instagrammable. Outside of a dog, as Groucho Marx said, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read — or selfie, or tweet, or anything. Inside of a book, you are absolved of the ever-escalating rat race for self-individualization through self-broadcast. You’re on another planet. Beyond GPS. You’re unfindable, unreachable. And yet, we read to know we are not alone.
“Somewhere in between normcore, cyberpunk, goth, and sportswear chic exists the possibly real trend known as “Health Goth,” wrote Allison P Davis in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog back in October. “It’s been kicking around since spring, actually, but it seems to have entered the mainstream this week.”
After which “came the inevitable cavalcade of follow-on articles,” wrote Jay Owens in the Hautepop post, The Week That Health Goth Broke. “Rather poetically,” Owens added, “many trend pieces are declaring it stillborn, dead before it arrived”:
Ushered in by appropriately uncertain headlines like, “Are you a Lumbersexual?” (Gawker); “Are you dating a Lumbersexual?” (Cosmopolitan); “Who Is the Lumbersexual and Is Anything About Him Real?” (Jezebel), another possibly-real trend arrived in November. As Tom Puzak explained in Gear Junkie:
Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo-outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.
He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.
Seen in New York, LA and everywhere in between, the Lumbersexual is bringing the outdoor industry’s clothing and accessories into the mainstream.
Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the Lumbersexual is on the rise.
“20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual,'” reads the Telegraph headline from June 2014. “But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.” Simpson calls it the “Spornosexual.”
The term is a portmanteau to describe “these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures,” Simpson explains. “But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.”
“Spornosexual” didn’t take off in the zeitgeist quite the way Lumbersexual has. Perhaps for being a little bit too foreign-sounding. And perhaps for being a little bit way too real to be possibly-real.
While I was writing this post, “Highsexual” happened. “What spawned the new psuedo-identity,” Michael D’Alimonte writes on MTL Blog, “was a slightly scandalous question posed to the reddit community, which basically can be summed up by a guy asking: I’m straight when I’m sober, but when I’m super high, I wanna bang guys, is this normal? And that is the crux of “highsexual,” a guy (or girl) that only ponders/enacts in gay sexual activity when stoned.”
While it’s true, as D’Alimonte notes, “You can apparently tack on -sexual to any word and create a new stratum of society,” (Goth too, evidently), in this particular case, the term pertains to sexuality directly rather than a fashion or aesthetic trend. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking, as D’Alimonte does, “Is being a highsexual a real thing?” The answer? “Well, now that it’s an internet-used term, it kind of is.”
Perhaps the most notorious of 2014’s possibly-real trends, and no longer an anomaly so much as a harbinger, is Normcore. I wrote about it at the beginning of last year. The jury never really came back on whether Normcore is a real fashion movement or an Internet meme that the mass media fell for and self-fulfilled into becoming real. As Alex Williams put it in The New York Times:
A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.
Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.
The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.
As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.
Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”
The Trends They Are A-changin’.
Last year, some friends of mine accidentally became health goths. They didn’t mean to. It just happened. They were goths who grew up and got too old to keep going out to clubs the way they once had, so they got into crossfit, and that was that. Unbeknownst to them, they’d become classified into a whole new, possibly-real style.
This is something that didn’t used to happen. You didn’t just accidentally become hiphop. You didn’t one day trip over yourself to discover you were unwittingly wearing 30-inch bottom raver pants. Your clothes weren’t punked out and ripped to shreds for no particular reason that you were aware of until you read a New York Magazine trend piece about it. Now, a lifestyle neologism goes viral and you discover you’ve contracted a trend.
Alternative fashion trends used to be representative of a larger lifestyle or subculture emergence. The fashion brands that defined these aesthetics were often overtly and inextricably linked to these cultures.
The Kikwear brand’s history reads: In 1993, one of our key accounts in San Francisco asked us to make them a 23″ bottom for their store because the Rave scene was beginning to emerge in Northern California and the kids were walking into the store with their homemade “wide leg” pants. We moved on this tip and sure enough those denim pant sold out immediately! We quickly realized that this Rave Movement was starting to come on strong throughout Southern California and we started launching wider leg pants known today as “phatties.”
Meanwhile, aggregating the de riguer health goth brands for the requisite The New York Times article on the subject, Meirav Devash listed: “Mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or gothic streetwear from Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn and Skingraft.”
When I asked Jonny Cota, the owner of Skingraft, about health goth, last year, his response was skeptical amusement. Like everyone else’s.
Perhaps that is what makes possibly-real trends so dubious: the lack of intentionality. Fashion choices used to have specific and unironic meanings. Hippies, punks, ravers, goths — these were cultural philosophies that spread through adoption, not (solely) aesthetic replication. Now, we don’t claim participation, we are simply colonized by memes, unwitting bystanders, just sort of swept up in cultural trend redistricting.
In the days of slow-moving, 20th century media, emergent cultural expressions had time to incubate below the radar before they tipped into mass awareness. Pre-Tumblr, the only way to find out about a new cultural emergence was through the unassailably real channel of one of its actual practitioners. There was no need to wonder about veracity. Now, a nascent trend doesn’t really have the time to mature into something legitimate before the trendhunting hyenas descend upon it, exposing it to a sudden burst of scrutiny. What remains becomes neither niche enough to be authentic nor mass enough to be indisputable. Maybe no new trend seems quite real because it hasn’t had the chance to become real before we’re looking it up on urban dictionary and just as swiftly are click-baited on to the next dubious dopamine hit of meme culture.
Much like any other “It” girl, pizza’s popularity was ignited by internet fascination and possibly endorsed by the Illuminati.
Tumblr and Twitter memes dedicated to pizza’s power appeared, among them the Twitter account Pizzaminati.
Loyal followers still carry on the work via usage of #Pizzaminati on Twitter and Instagram. As such, “pizza” quickly took on new meaning — for example, pizza as a substitute in romantic relationship.The phrase “touch her butt and give her pizza” became a widely accepted way to keep your bae happy and “Pizza Is My Boyfriend” the new “Single Ladies” rally cry.
Then came the various pithy pizza message tees at clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Asos and Urban Outfitters.
However, almost as quickly as the Pizzaminati emerged, it disappeared. This, a screenshot of a funny tweet — “shots fired in the club over the last slice of pizza” — is all that remains. Where did you go, Pizzaminati? Were you really a sect of the Illuminati, destroyed once the pizza takeover was initiated? Yes, probably.
“The kids are doing the normcore,” my friend Quang said, trying out the new phrase with a deliberate, old fart dialect.
Only a few moments earlier I had tossed off the word like common parlance.
“‘Normcore?’” he had repeated, making sure he’d heard correctly.
“Yeah,” I explained, “It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s us, now.”
A shockingly pleasant March afternoon had arrived in Boston that day, on the heels of a cold that had felt like osteoporosis. A decade in LA had turned me into a wimp. I had forgotten how I’d ever managed to live through this in my youth.
But that day in Boston, in 2014, hanging out with friends who had come up through the rave, circus, and goth subcultures, you could hardly tell where any of us had been. What we wore now was nondescript. Non-affiliated. Normal.
The week before, at a craft beer tasting party at an indie advertising agency in Silver Lake, a sculpture artist was remarking about recently looking through photos of style choices from the aughts. “What was I thinking,” she said in bewilderment. That evening she was wearing a black tank top, and, like, pants. Maybe three quarter length? Or not? Maybe black jeans? Or not-jean pants? I couldn’t recall. Perhaps, I thought, this was just a symptom of getting older. There was some kind of sartorial giving a shit phase that we had all grown out of. But it turned out this, too, was a trend. Kids, too young to have grown out of anything, were dressing this way.
I realized that, from behind, I could no longer tell if my fellow Soho pedestrians were art kids or middle-aged, middle-American tourists. Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfortable sneakers, both types looked like they might’ve just stepped off an R-train after shopping in Times Square. When I texted my friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on the latest urban camouflage, I got an immediate reply: “lol normcore.”
Normcore—it was funny, but it also effectively captured the self-aware, stylized blandness I’d been noticing. Brad’s source for the term was the trend forecasting collective (and fellow artists) K-Hole. They had been using it in a slightly different sense, not to describe a particular look but a general attitude: embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for “difference” or “authenticity.”
Oh my god, I thought reading this: this is me.
In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, published in 2004, cultural critics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter examined the inherent contradiction in the idea that counterculture was an opposition to mass consumer culture. Not only were they not opposed, Heath and Potter explained, they weren’t even separate. Alternative culture’s obsession with being different — expressing that difference through prescribed fashion products and subcultural artifacts — had, in fact, helped to create the very mass consumer society the counterculture believed itself to be the alternative to.
“To me, Nike’s famous swoosh logo had long been the mark of the manipulated,” wrote Rob Walker, author of 2008′s Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy And Who We Are, ”A symbol for suckers who take its ‘Just Do It’ bullying at face value. It’s long been, in my view, a brand for followers. On the other hand, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star had been a mainstay sneaker for me since I was a teenager back in the 1980′s, and I stuck with it well into my thirties. Converse was the no-bullshit yin to Nike’s all-style-and-image yang. It’s what my outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Combain wore. So I found [Nike’s] buyout [of Converse] disheartening…. but why, really, did I feel so strongly about a brand of sneaker–any brand of sneaker?”
In response to Buying In, I’d written, “Whether we’re choosing to wear Nikes, Converse, Timberlands, Doc Martens, or some obscure Japanese brand that doesn’t even exist in the US, we’re deliberately saying something about ourselves with the choice. And regardless of how “counter” to whatever culture we think we are, getting to express that differentiation about our selves requires buying something.”
But that was five years ago. A funny thing happened on the way to the mid twenty-teens. The digital era ushered in an unprecedented flood of availability — of both information and products. This constant, ubiquitous access to everything — what Chris Anderson dubbed the “Long Tail” in his 2006 book of the same name – had changed the cultural equation. We had evolved, as Anderson predicted, “from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” With the widespread proliferation of internet access, mass culture got less mass, and niche culture got less obscure. We became what Anderson called a “massively parallel culture: millions of microcultures coexisting and interacting in a baffling array of ways.” On this new, flattened landscape, what was there to be counter to?
“Jeremy Lewis, the founder/editor of Garmento and a freelance stylist and fashion writer, calls normcore ‘one facet of a growing anti-fashion sentiment,’” Duncan writes in New York Magazine. “His personal style is (in the words of Andre Walker, a designer Lewis featured in the magazine’s last issue) ‘exhaustingly plain’—this winter, that’s meant a North Face fleece, khakis, and New Balances. Lewis says his ‘look of nothing’ is about absolving oneself from fashion.”
That is how normcore happened to me, too. When I quit the circus, leaving behind its sartorial regulations, I realized that difference wasn’t an expression of identity: it was a rat race.
“Fashion has become very overwhelming and popular,” Lewis explains in New York Magazine. “Right now a lot of people use fashion as a means to buy rather than discover an identity and they end up obscured and defeated. I’m getting cues from people like Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a very flat look, conspicuously unpretentious, maybe even endearingly awkward. It’s a lot of cliché style taboos, but it’s not the irony I love, it’s rather practical and no-nonsense, which to me, right now, seems sexy. I like the idea that one doesn’t need their clothes to make a statement.”
“Magazines, too,” Duncan writes, “have picked up the look:”
The enduring appeal of the Patagonia fleece [was] displayed on Patrik Ervell and Marc Jacobs’s runways. Edie Campbell slid into Birkenstocks (or the Céline version thereof) in Vogue Paris. Adidas trackies layered under Louis Vuitton cashmere in Self Service. A bucket hat and Nike slippers framed an Alexander McQueen coveralls in Twin. Smaller, younger magazines like London’s Hot and Cool and New York’s Sex, were interested in even more genuinely average ensembles, skipping high-low blends for the purity of head-to-toe normcore.
One of the first stylists I started bookmarking for her normcore looks was the London-based Alice Goddard. She was assembling this new mainstream minimalism in the magazine she co-founded, Hot and Cool, as early as 2011. For Goddard, the appeal of normal clothes was the latest thing. One standout editorial from Hot and Cool no. 5 (Spring 2013) was composed entirely of screenshots of people from Google Map’s Street View app. Goddard had stumbled upon “this tiny town in America” on Map sand thought the plainly-dressed people there looked amazing. The editorial she designed was a parody of contemporary street style photography—“the main point of difference,” she says, “being that people who are photographed by street style photographers are generally people who have made a huge effort with their clothing, and the resulting images often feel a bit over fussed and over precious—the subject is completely aware of the outcome; whereas the people we were finding on Google Maps obviously had no idea they were being photographed, and yet their outfits were, to me, more interesting.”
New media has changed our relation to information, and, with it, fashion. Reverse Google Image Search and tools like Polyvore make discovering the source of any garment as simple as a few clicks. Online shopping—from eBay through the Outnet—makes each season available for resale almost as soon as it goes on sale. As Natasha Stagg, the Online Editor of V Magazine and a regular contributor at DIS (where she recently wrote a normcore-esque essay about the queer appropriation of mall favorite Abercrombie & Fitch), put it: “Everyone is a researcher and a statistician now, knowing accidentally the popularity of every image they are presented with, and what gets its own life as a trend or meme.” The cycles of fashion are so fast and so vast, it’s impossible to stay current; in fact, there is no one current.
Emily Segal of K-HOLE insists that normcore isn’t about one specific aesthetic. “It’s not about being simple or forfeiting individuality to become a bland, uniform mass,” she explains. Rather, it’s about welcoming the possibility of being recognizable, of looking like other people—and “seeing that as an opportunity for connection.”
K-HOLE describes normcore as a theory rather than a look; but in practice, the contemporary normcore styles I’ve seen have their clear aesthetic precedent in the nineties. The editorials in Hot and Cool look a lot like Corinne Day styling newcomer Kate Moss in Birkenstocks in 1990, or like Art Club 2000′s appropriation of madras from the Gap, like grunge-lite and Calvin Klein minimalism. But while (in their original incarnation) those styles reflected anxiety around “selling out,” today’s version is more ambivalent toward its market reality.
In a post Hot-Topic world, where Forever21 serves up fast fashion in processed flavors like, Occupy:
and Burning Man:
we’re realizing that alternativeness, as a means for authentic self expression, is futile.“Normcore isn’t about rebelling against or giving into the status quo,” Duncan concludes, “It’s about letting go of the need to look distinctive.”
In our all-access, always connected, globalized world, obscurity is scarce. When everything is accessible, nothing is alternative.
“In the 21st century,” Rob Walker wrote back in 2008, not recognizing the quickly approaching end of counterculture, “We still grapple with the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we’re apart of something bigger than ourselves. We all seek ways to resolve this fundamental tension of modern life.”
In 2014, normcore is one solution we’ve found to resolve it.
Since November I have been a partner, with long-time friend, Katie Kay Mead, in a retail endeavor called, Gather. Gather is a fashion incbuator of sorts, scouting and developing the best and brightest indie design talent into viable forces within the vocabulary of L.A. fashion. The boutique / consultancy has received accolades from LA Weekly as a proponent of the “slow fashion” movement, and been named one of the city’s “top mom and pop shops” by Racked LA. Katie, who has previously helped guide Skingraft Designs to success, and launched a fan-sourced merch project with Amanda Palmer, heads up scouting L.A.’s fresh fashion talent and selecting the most unique pieces. Meanwhile, I take on the digital strategy side of things. And on that note, I’m very excited to announce the launch of a new digital product from the boutique: The_Gather email, a curated missive of hyper-local fashion.
Since 2010, Gather has scoured the depths of Los Angeles to find the city’s best designers and unique products. Today we are excited to bring Gather to you!You are among the first to receive our brand new, curated fashion-gram — The_Gather — a hand-selected sampler featuring the latest items added to the store. So browse, purchase, and support your local designers —without dealing with L.A. traffic.
As always, thank you for supporting independent fashion!
According to the Mayan calendar — as translated by new-age hippies I used to know, and depicted by Roland Emmerich — the year 2012 is alleged to herald the apocalypse. Perhaps this collective unconscious sense of mass destruction is what’s driving the popularity of turn-of-the-millennium musings about the end of the world. In June 2008, Adbusters’ cover story was, literally, titled, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Three and a half years later, Vanity Fair’s first issue of 2012 asks, “You Say You Want a Devolution? From Fashion to Housewares, Are We in a Decades-Long Design Rut?” While these two publications could arguably not be further apart on the target audience spectrum, they’re singing the same doomsday tune. As Kurt Andersen writes in the Vanity Fair piece, “The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.” The last line of the article concludes, “I worry some days, this is the way that Western civilization declines, not with a bang but with a long, nostalgic whimper.” But has cultural evolution really come to a grinding halt in the 21st century, or are we simply looking in all the old places, not realizing it’s moved on?
In Adbusters, Douglas Haddow sets up the alleged apocalypse like so:
Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society. But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the ‘Hipster.’
Echoing that sentiment in Vanity Fair, Andersen writes:
Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it. It’s even true of the 19th century: practically no respectable American man wore a beard before the 1850s, for instance, but beards were almost obligatory in the 1870s, and then disappeared again by 1900.
Writing about the Adbusters piece in 2008, I pointed to a central flaw in the premise: the emergence of what Chris Anderson, in his 2006 book of the same name, calls, The Long Tail. Digital technology, Anderson writes, has ushered in “An evolution from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” In this new, rebalanced equation, “Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass. And niche culture will get less obscure.” What Adbusters saw as the end of Western civilization was actually the end of mass culture; a transition to a confederacy of niches. So, if mass culture, as the construct we, and Adbusters, had known it to be was over, what was there to be “counter” to anymore? (While, more recently, Occupy Wall Street has thrown its hat into the ring, it’s not so much anti-mass culture as it is pro-redefining the concept: the 99%, through the movement’s message — let alone mathematics — is not the counterculture. It IS the culture.)
Unlike Haddow, Andersen doesn’t blame the purported cultural stagnation on any one group of perpetrators. Rather, the “decades-long design rut” has descended upon us all, he suggests, like an aesthetic recession, the result of some unregulated force originating in the 1960′s and depreciating steadily until it simply collapsed, and none of us noticed until it was too late. “Look at people on the street and in malls,” Andersen writes, “Jeans and sneakers remain the standard uniform for all ages, as they were in 2002, 1992, and 1982. Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new.” And yet, “during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.”
Or is it?
In a 2003 New York Times article titled, The Guts of a new Machine, the design prophet of the 21st century revealed his philosophy on the subject: “People think it’s this veneer,” said the late Steve Jobs, “That the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Think about it. Picture it. Those big, bulbous cars Andersen describes, with their late-moderne fenders and fins, so unmistakably different from 1952 to 1977, just how different were they, really, in how they worked? Not that much. In the 20th century you could pop open the hood of a car and with some modicum of mechanics know what it was you were looking at. Now, the guy in the wifebeater working on the Camaro in his garage is an anachronism. You’ll never see that guy leaning over the guts of a post-Transformers, 2012 Camaro. Let alone a hybrid or an electric vehicle. “With rare exceptions,” Andersen argues, “cars from the early 90s (and even the late 80s) don’t seem dated.” And yet, there’s no way anyone would confuse a Chevy Volt with anything GM was making 10 years ago, or a Toyota Prius with what was on the road in the early 90s, or voice recognition capability, completely common in a 2012 model, as anything but a science fiction conceit in a show starring David Hasselhoff, in 80s. While it’s debatable that exterior automotive styling hasn’t changed in the past 30 years (remember the Tercel? The station wagon? The Hummer? A time before the SUV?) it’s indisputable that the way a 2012 automobile works has changed.
For the majority of human history the style shifts between eras were pretty much entirely cosmetic. From the Greeks to the Romans, from the Elizabethans to the Victorians, what fluctuated most was the exterior. It wasn’t until the pace of technological innovation began to accelerate in the 20th century that design became concerned with what lay beneath the surface. In the 1930s, industrial designer Raymond Loewy forged a new design concept, called Streamlining. One of the first and most widespread design concepts to draw its rationale from technology, Streamlining was characterized by stripping Art Deco, its flamboyant 1920’s predecessor, of all nonessential ornamentation in favor a smooth, pure-line concept of motion and speed. Under the austerity of the Depression era, the superficial flourishes of Art Deco became fraudulent, falsely modern. Loewy’s vision of a modern world was minimalist, frictionless, developed from aerodynamics and other scientific concepts. By the 1960’s Loewy’s streamlined designs for thousands of consumer goods — everything from toasters and refrigerators to automobiles and spacecrafts — had radically changed the look of American life.
What began in the 20th century as a design concept has, in the 21st, become THE design concept. Technological innovation — the impact of which Andersen breezes past — has become the driving force behind aesthetic innovation. Design is how it works. Aerodynamics has paved the way for modern considerations like efficiency, performance, usability, sustainability, and more. But unlike fluctuating trends in men’s facial hair or collar size, technology moves in one direction. It does not vacillate, it iterates, improving on what came before, building incrementally. The biggest aesthetic distinctions, therefore, have become increasingly smaller.
Consider, for example, this optical illusion:
What, exactly, is the difference between the two things above? Rewind twenty years, and it’s already unlikely most people would have been able to really tell a difference in any meaningful way. Go back even further in time, and these things become pretty much identical to everyone. Yet we, the inhabitants of 2012, would never, ever, mistake one for the other. The most minute, subtlest of details are huge universes of difference to us now. We have become obsessives, no longer just consumers but connoisseurs, fanatics with post-industrial palates altered by exposure to a higher resolution. And it’s not just about circuitry. In fashion, too, significant signifiers have become more subtle.
Fifteen hard-to-find, premium brands of jeans—most based in Japan, a country known for its quality denim—line the walls. Prices range from the low three figures all the way up to four figures for a pair by Kyuten, embedded with ground pearl and strips of rare vintage kimono. Warehouse’s Duckdigger jeans are sandblasted in Japan with grains shipped from Nevada and finished with mismatched vintage hardware and twenties-style suspender buttons. Most jeans are raw, so clients can produce their own fade, and the few that are pre-distressed are never airbrushed; free hemming is available in-house on a rare Union Special chain-stitcher from an original Levi’s factory.
“Our massively scaled-up new style industry naturally seeks stability and predictability,” Andersen argues. “Rapid and radical shifts in taste make it more expensive to do business and can even threaten the existence of an enterprise.” But in fact, when it comes to fashion, quite the opposite is true. To keep us buying new clothes — and we do: according to the Daily Mail, women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe today as they did in 1980, buying, and discarding half their body weight in clothes per year — styles have to keep changing. Rapid and radical shifts in taste are the foundation of the fashion business; a phenomenon the industry exploits, not fears. And the churn rate has only accelerated. “Fast Fashion,” a term coined in the mid-2000′s, means more frequent replacement of cheaper clothes that become outdated more quickly.
“The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives,” Andersen writes, “Our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.” But what has truly become old-fashioned in the 21st century, whether we’ve realized it or not, is the idea of a style being able to define a decade at all. It’s as old-fashioned as a TV with a radial dial or retail limitations dictated by brick and mortar. As Andersen himself writes, “For the first time, anyone anywhere with any arcane cultural taste can now indulge it easily and fully online, clicking themselves deep into whatever curious little niche (punk bossa nova, Nigerian noir cinema, pre-war Hummel figurines) they wish.” And primarily what we wish for, as Andersen sees it, is what’s come before. “Now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past.” To be fair, there is a deep nostalgic undercurrent to our pop culture, but to look at the decentralization of cultural distribution and see only “a cover version of something we’ve seen or heard before” is to miss the bigger picture of our present, and our future. The long tail has dismantled the kind of aesthetic uniformity that could have once come to represent a decade’s singular style. In a confederacy of niches there is no longer a media source mass enough to define and disseminate a unified look or sound.
Here’s a thought experiment. Take a typical man on the street from the year 1900 and drop him into the 1950s. Then take someone from the 1950s and move him Austin Powers-style into the present day. Who would experience the greater change?
On the basis of big, obvious technological changes alone, surely the 1900-to-1950s traveler would experience the greater shift, while the other might easily conclude that we’d spent the second half of the twentieth century doing little more than tweaking the great waves of the ﬁrst half.
But the longer they stayed in their new homes, the more each time-traveler would become aware of subtler dimensions of change. Once the glare of technology had dimmed, each would begin to notice their respective society’s changed norms and values, and the ways in which everyday people live and work. And here the tables would be turned. In terms of adjusting to the social structures and the rhythms and patterns of daily life, our second time-traveler would be much more disoriented.
Someone from the early 1900s would ﬁnd the social world of the 1950s remarkably similar to his own. If he worked in a factory, he might find much the same divisions of labor, the same hierarchical systems of control. If he worked in an ofﬁce, he would be immersed in the same bureaucracy, the same climb up the corporate ladder. He would come to work at 8 or 9 each morning and leave promptly at 5, his life neatly segmented into compartments of home and work. He would wear a suit and tie. Most of his business associates would be white and male. Their values and ofﬁce politics would hardly have changed. He would seldom see women in the work-place, except as secretaries, and almost never interact professionally with someone of another race. He would marry young, have children quickly thereafter, stay married to the same person and probably work for the same company for the rest of his life. He would join the clubs and civic groups beﬁtting his socioeconomic class, observe the same social distinctions, and fully expect his children to do likewise. The tempo of his life would be structured by the values and norms of organizations. He would ﬁnd himself living the life of the “company man” so aptly chronicled by writers from Sinclair Lewis and John Kenneth Galbraith to William Whyte and C.Wright Mills.
Our second time-traveler, however, would be quite unnerved by the dizzying social and cultural changes that had accumulated between the 1950s and today. At work he would ﬁnd a new dress code, a new schedule, and new rules. He would see ofﬁce workers dressed like folks relaxing on the weekend, in jeans and open-necked shirts, and be shocked to learn they occupy positions of authority. People at the ofﬁce would seemingly come and go as they pleased. The younger ones might sport bizarre piercings and tattoos. Women and even nonwhites would be managers. Individuality and self-expression would be valued over conformity to organizational norms — and yet these people would seem strangely puritanical to this time-traveler. His ethnic jokes would fall embarrassingly ﬂat. His smoking would get him banished to the parking lot, and his two-martini lunches would raise genuine concern. Attitudes and expressions he had never thought about would cause repeated offense. He would continually suffer the painful feeling of not knowing how to behave.
Out on the street, this time-traveler would see different ethnic groups in greater numbers than he ever could have imagined — Asian-, Indian-, and Latin-Americans and others — all mingling in ways he found strange and perhaps inappropriate. There would be mixed-race couples, and same-sex couples carrying the upbeat-sounding moniker “gay.” While some of these people would be acting in familiar ways — a woman shopping while pushing a stroller, an ofﬁce worker having lunch at a counter — others, such as grown men clad in form-ﬁtting gear whizzing by on high-tech bicycles, or women on strange new roller skates with their torsos covered only by “brassieres” — would appear to be engaged in alien activities.
People would seem to be always working and yet never working when they were supposed to. They would strike him as lazy and yet obsessed with exercise. They would seem career-conscious yet ﬁckle — doesn’t anybody stay with the company more than three years? — and caring yet antisocial: What happened to the ladies’ clubs, Moose Lodges and bowling leagues? While the physical surroundings would be relatively familiar, the feel of the place would be bewilderingly different.
Thus, although the ﬁrst time-traveler had to adjust to some drastic technological changes, it is the second who experiences the deeper, more pervasive transformation. It is the second who has been thrust into a time when lifestyles and worldviews are most assuredly changing — a time when the old order has broken down, when flux and uncertainty themselves seem to be part of the everyday norm.
It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it. And I feel fine.