as little fear

Missive from the Target Clearance Rack

I.

I’m late to talking about normcore and class. So late in fact that something that was recently kind of subculturey and isolated is now mainstream and available at forever21. I learned from the movie, The Devil Wears Prada (everything I’ve ever learned about the fashion industry has come from this movie) that this is how it often goes – culture to runway to fast fashion.

II.

Coming to Parsons as a freshman was a mild culture shock to me, from a class standpoint. Growing up the people in my life who “had money” were people whose parents had mortgages. Full time trained professionals, with life insurance. Coming to Parsons, the people whose parents “had money” were on a totally different level from anything I’d been exposed to. I became quickly aware of the shift. Rather than just let my classmates have private, presumably judgemental thoughts about it, I tried to take control of the way they perceived me and what they assumed about me. I was very intentional about the way I dressed and talked and was stubborn to embrace a more grown up look that sometimes people find in their first year at college. When I became a resident advisor, I began to notice the transformations the residence hall freshman residents would undertake from the time their parents dropped them off at the dorm to the day they flew home, alone – leaving non-perishables and furniture I’d claim from their abandoned rooms. Going to school in Peak Lady Gaga Times made its impact. First year students between 2009 and 2013 were introduced to transparent acrylic polyhedrons, leather, minimal lines, helvetica light, the color black, the color white. In contrast, I can be found in the tagged photos from 2010 wearing flared jeans with intentional tears, Target henley shirts, and late-era Hot Topic hoodies, and black low-top Chuck Taylors every damn day. I wore a Hellogoodbye t-shirt on the first day of class. My early graphic design work is colorful and busy, as it remains to this day. I was steadfast in my commitment to portraying my authentic Cleveland, poor to lower-middle class background and my arts upbringing being a little more Joann Fabrics then AP Art. LIke what Darlene from Roseanne would look like if she was a real person who grew up watching Will and Grace and Project Runway. I tried to take control of what people might be saying about know. “I know what you think about me and I want to joke about it before you even get a chance to make fun of me or judge me.”

So when I see people talking and writing think pieces about “normcore” (this is in fact a think piece about normcore) I think we are missing a lot because most people are not experiencing it through a lens of cross-class experiences.

III.

Dominant culture will take what it wants from you. In this case, nostalgia, irony, and clean lines. The ainstream romanticizes certain aspects of marginalized identities while demonizing others. While upper middle class, usually white and/or non-black people of color from upper class backgrounds take advantage of trends that favor dressing down in sweatpants and strongly identifying with ironic dad culture, they make fun of people of walmart and talk about people and places being ghetto or whatever the Refinery29 or Buzzfeed alternative is.

Having experiences where you feel like an other, like not having any money, forces you to find people you can relate to and you hold on to them. More than once in my freshmen year of college, I wondered aloud with a friend about why rich people try so hard to dress like they’re not rich! This is a question I’m obviously still wondering about. I can articulate better now that dressing down is a status symbol. Dressing casually shows that you are above reproach, judgement, or mistreatment because you are protected by whiteness, money, career, status, education, or gender presentation. One of those damn near universal experiences for people of color and low income/working class people is being told that they are going to have to work harder to get on the same level as everybody else. The aesthetic of not really trying and dressing like you need to buy clothes at Walmart, but never Target – or thrift stores, which would allow them to about how they have such amazing taste that they can pick something truly beautiful out of the otherwise trash – is one that assumes you will rewarded on the basis of your simply trying. As opposed to marginalized people who no one is banking on and have to put intention and perfection into everything that we do. We have to be conscious all the time, in all the ways – dress properly, speak totally perfect at all times (especially people whose second language is english!), be on time and eager to work.

IV.

Today, my question is more like, why if there is so much money, education, resources, travel, networking, and pressure put into privileged creative people, like fashion designers and graphic designers, then why do they try so hard to emulate the aesthetics of groups that have far less? Why, after generations of distancing themselves from groups that they’ve actively marginalized, through red-lining, white flight, creating ghettos and suburbs and gated communities, do they seek out an “industrial” or “urban” look? How is it that the cosmopolitan coasts are the epicenters of creative industries but siphon so much, culturally from the so called fly-over states? What would the creative output from every field look like if it was more saturated with people from differing experiences?

These ideas of class and normcore are elephants in the room in fashion and style, where we wear our taste and our money on our bodies for all to see. But as a creative person – a graphic designer and ~artist, these aesthetics pervade these worlds too. Like, what’s up with small independent luxury magazines? One after another with the exact same aesthetic and content. There are just so many and I barely have to describe what I’m talking about because you already know. It’s Kinf**k and its renaissance 90s nostalgia design cousins. Looking at you Yale. It’s jazz cups but not drinking soda because it’s bad for you and writing petitions at schools to have all soda machines removed. It’s taking the cherry-picking pieces of populist, whether “bespoke” or corporate design and visual culture and “elevating” it and leaving the rest behind for us. It’s about having luxurious bare white walls because you can afford the space.

For me, it’s also about the pandering visual representation of what it means for something to look “accessible” and “friendly”. It’s about looking back to previous generations and having nostalgia for experiences, including art and visual culture we’ve never had and making them seem better than what we have, rather than actually trying to make things better or different, like we’ve never seen before. On some real Make America Great Again shit. It’s about people intellectualizing things they’ve done to justify what they want aesthetically and their lack of critical thinking. I don’t have a lot of patience for speaking of things on a certain level, or using or hearing the phrase “a certain level.”

**I’m interested in learning and reading more about this if you want to talk or have recommendations for people’s work to check out!!!

hi@joelleriffle.com

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