Normcore and the dilemmas of archaeological interpretation

I’ve seen a few articles lately about a fashion trend called “normcore,” which involves trying to dress like “normal people” in boring, unbranded or common clothes. My first reaction was to laugh – oh, so now I’m fashionable? My second was to get confused about whether this was an ironic statement about fashion trends, a sincere attempt to romanticize and imitate people who just don’t try too hard to look good, or possibly both. (Still confused.) My third was to laugh again at how brilliantly this illustrates dilemmas of interpretation in archaeology.

Lately, my dissertation research is certainly analogous to finding a pair of jeans from Target and trying to figure out whether the person who wore them was making a statement of resistance against dominant fashion ideologies through “normcore” consumption, or was just trying to buy some affordable clothes that would go with everything. I’m studying a collection of ceramic sherds, which are mostly from extremely common and affordable dinner dishes and tea sets, as well as a few probate inventories, which list the belongings in a household after the owner’s death. These are from Indian and Black whaling households from about 1790 to 1906, but they look much like what you would expect to find in a working class white household of the same period.

This is as normal as it gets. (Image: nautarch.tamu.edu.)

What, then, were consumers in these households trying to show through their choices of perfectly normal dinner plates? Like potential “normcore” fashion items, you could posit and combine multiple interpretations:

  • Perhaps these dishes show the value of consumption as a means of practicing belonging and normalcy in a society in which people of color were not granted full inclusion as citizens.
  • Perhaps the matched sets and tea wares indicate attempts to be respectable and counter stereotypes through emulation of higher-status dining practices.
  • Perhaps the matched sets indicate economic mobility, in that people were able to buy large quantities and (according to probates) purchase entire new sets to replace damaged ones.
  • Perhaps they were the most affordable and readily available options for supplying everyday needs – not a conscious statement at all.
  • Perhaps the absence of rare and expensive items shows continuing economic inequality along racial lines.
  • Perhaps the absence of rare and expensive items shows resistance to upper class white domestic ideologies.
  • Perhaps the absence of rare and expensive items shows an effort to avoid conspicuous consumption despite growing economic mobility, since people of color also faced stereotypes of profligacy and waste.

I’m working through these possibilities now, between my dissertation, an article manuscript, and my upcoming fellow talk at the John Carter Brown Library. But the point is that these issues of interpretation have clear parallels in the present. Both my ceramic collection and “normcore” fashion exemplify the similar material appearance of what Michael Dietler calls “the logic of indifference/rejection” – a lack of concern with certain objects and meanings, and an active rejection of them, look the same. Both present multiple interpretive possibilities as intentional symbolic choices vs. parts of embodied, unconscious habitus vs. economically determined consumption practices.

By nature, consumption is an ambiguous practice. As Dietler writes, it is “an active process of creative appropriation, transformation, and manipulation played out by individuals and social groups with a variety of competing interests and strategies of action embedded in local political relations and cultural perceptions” (Archaeologies of Colonialism 2009: 55). People redefine their possessions beyond the manufacturers’ intentions through acts of consumption and use, and they may always have connections to some referential meanings, but none are absolutely fixed. This is why “normcore” as a fashion choice is inevitably different than less self-consciously “normal” clothing choices: the appropriation changes the meaning.

In the context of contemporary fashion choices, living people yield a variety of important clues to how their social positions influence their consumption, including embodied habits of movement, speech, and self-presentation, contextual hints such as their places of residence, education, and work-related commitments, and the obvious question of whether they are likely to be featured and photographed as fashion icons in the first place. In the context of archaeology, it can be more difficult, since we see objects in a necessarily fragmented and incomplete way, and we can no longer ask their owners about their meanings. Nevertheless, we can try to line up as many clues from as many sources as possible, establishing personal biographies through historical research, looking at artifacts in assemblages as well as individually, and contrasting the contexts in which we do find objects from site to site or study to study. These are our best methods for approximating the contextual clues living people constantly and unconsciously provide. The narratives we end up with are partial and incomplete, but we do our best to interpret the evidence we do have responsibly.

The moral of this story: next time you read about a trend involving ironic (or perhaps sincere) appropriation of something that gives it a completely different meaning, think of the archaeologists.