Notes on Dress Normal: The GAP and the Normcore Movement

Dress Normal: The GAP and the Normcore Movement Only recently has the GAP realized that it has been unintentionally perpetuating the Normcore movement for the past forty-six years. Or maybe they’ve known the entire time. With Oxford button downs, plaid shirts, and chino pants, the GAP has been a hallmark of the unisex wardrobe–offering traditionally fashionable clothing at reasonable prices for the sector of the population that doesn’t know what they want, but prefers not to shop at Walmart or some other discount retail chain.

*Full disclaimer: I shop at the GAP. But not for those reasons per se. Let’s just say I have a very mild fashion sense living on a modest budget. The kind of person that doesn’t have the patience or the desire to put together matching outfits for every occasion, but still wants to look presentable (whatever that means). I guess you can add sociopath to the list of potential clientele.

Yet that’s also why the GAP’s new advertising campaign to “Dress Normal” is so problematic–not that I’ve heard any particular public outcry. It seems to confront this notion of being ordinary or in another sense, neutered; which doesn’t seem to be the defining aesthetic its customers would appreciate. In other words, there’s an assumption that most would prefer not to be cognizant of these mundane qualities. It’s too direct, rife with irony and other contradictions. But that’s exactly where the Normcore movement allows the GAP to make such a bold assertion. And why bother fighting it? There’s no incentive other than to dress a little weirder or rally against the understated fascism of a large corporation telling its customers to dress normal without the slightest indication of acknowledging this irony. We just accept the tagline at face value without taking into consideration the indirect message being transmitted: that normal has always existed; that normal can be grounded into a unified aesthetic. It’s like if IKEA started advertising for its customers to use its ‘normal furniture’, which for the record, is exactly what IKEA represents, but what the hell would that even mean? And no, a dozen or so clever taglines to go along with the concept don’t change the overall theme. Actions do not speak louder than words when the imposition of the words themselves constitutes an action in and of itself.

Anyway, after doing some initial research into the campaign, it’s obvious that the GAP is merely trying to capitalize on something that was already taking place, i.e. the Normcore movement. It’s understandable that not everyone wants to stand out or develop a highly original fashion sense. Some of us just want to look ‘normal’ without considering the implications of this statement. And that’s where the binary of normal versus abnormal comes into play. Neither retains a proper definition in this context; better yet (and as a possible corollary) it reinforces the unspoken rules of fashion (which technically shouldn’t be) while acknowledging they exist for a reason….an unintentional austerity in such a provocative, deceptively innocuous phrase.

“Dress Normal” doesn’t just refer to the Normcore movement, but instead, has larger implications toward mass culture. It’s a call to homogeneity, to adopting a standard that only exists in righteous terms. It’s a challenge to the concept and creativity of self-expression. It also serves as a defense mechanism. Suddenly, the GAP introduces a normative value for fashion as if we’ve evolved into a society that was always meant to wear 1969 jeans and an oxford button down with loafers. That’s not to say that the Normcore movement doesn’t have its own virtues or that what I’ve described isn’t a good look. There are a lot of different kinds of people that could potentially fall under what is essentially an umbrella term (like all movements and ideologies with general terms and conditions). Maybe dressing normal just means not drawing too much attention toward oneself because that person is shy or has too much social anxiety.

The inverse of this possibility is the othering of anyone that doesn’t “dress normal.’ As a defense mechanism, we are then purchasing not just clothing, but the peace of mind to decide that our attire cannot be seen as weird or out of place–in essence, an oversimplification of one’s potential signifiers. Moreover, as part of a hegemonic sect of society (the GAP is the largest specialty-retailer in the US and third-largest in the world), we can impose our normalness on others as well as extend the boundaries of that definition. It’s almost like an extreme form of moderation. To be fair, this can also be construed as a way of placing less emphasis on physical appearance, but that is less often the case.

In the end, the GAP is making the best of a possible marking opportunity. Timing is everything after all. But the broader implication of telling people to dress normal is both irresponsible and easily susceptible to unintended consequences. It’s the kind of phrase, that without context, takes on so many implicit meanings–which is another way of saying that this particular advertising campaign, along with some of its more provocative taglines, is well on its way to being a success.