MSNBC viewers were glued to Steve Kornacki for all of last week, watching as the political correspondent — now known as America’s “map daddy” — ran around the studio, writing numbers (often indecipherably) on the touchscreen electoral map and announcing new ballot counts as they came in. As states went red or blue, and the 2020 presidential results crystalized, Kornacki remained our captain and stalwart steward, all while clad in a pair of khakis. As the future of democracy and the country hung in the balance, the normcore pants, too, became a topic of conversation: Refinery29 wrote an ode to Kornacki’s khakis; Vulture debated whether the political correspondent’s “butt looks especially good or we’re just slowly being driven mad;” and The Strategist investigated Gap’s entire assortment to find the exact pair he wore on-air.
And while it might seem unusual for people to obsess over a pair of regular-looking, business casual pants from one of America’s mall mainstays, given the year we’ve had, it’s also not surprising. When nothing in 2020 looks the same as it has in years past — with a lockdown that ushered people indoors and an election season that seemed to come out of the first draft of The Hunger Games — it makes sense that we look to things that are familiar. Enter: Kornacki in what fashion folk would describe as one of the most decidedly non-fashion, yet instantly recognizable articles of clothing.
But it’s not just familiarity that’s appealing about the look. While people have lamented the end of micro bags and jeans, one of the wardrobe sections that’s suffered the most as a result of the pandemic is workwear. Now we only have memories of times when one had to trade jeans for khakis or slacks for a meeting with an important client or to see extended family for a holiday dinner. Zoom meetings are all we know right now, and with the right camera angle, your bottoms don’t matter (but please do wear them). As such, there is something downright thrilling about seeing Kornacki all “dressed up” in a collared shirt, tie, and pants that may or may not flatter the backside. Over the course of several anxiety-filled days, Kornacki stayed calm amidst the chaos and delivered the news in an even-keeled, fact-based manner that was reassuring to many. Refinery29’s Natalie Gontcharova noted, “Kornacki, with his rolled-up button-down sleeves and Gap khakis in Palomino Brown, projects an aura of trustworthy, West Wing-era nerdiness that makes many people feel like logic and reason can prevail during this absolutely batshit, science-averse time.”
It’s not unlike when, in the early days of nationwide stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, people on the internet buzzed about the polo shirts that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wore during his daily coronavirus briefings. A universally staid article of clothing that evokes country clubs and sports like tennis and golf, suddenly, the collared shirt was a source of fashion inspiration. (The unoffending look even prompted some controversy when many wondered if Cuomo had a nipple piercing.) The look seemed to convey the idea that Cuomo was rolling up his sleeves and getting to work fighting the pandemic. As Fashionista’s Tyler McCall put it in March, there is something “soothing” and reassuring about seeing a politician in a slightly unbuttoned casual short-sleeve shirt rather than a suit: “It's a softer look which helps tremendously when delivering a tougher message. It says: I'm here, I'm going to help us all.”
This obsession with something as normcore as khakis and polo shirts is not exclusive to the pandemic. You only need to look to last winter, when no article of clothing was as discussed as a basic cable-knit sweater like the one Chris Evans wore in the whodunit Knives Out. After he appeared in the Aran knit, people went into a frenzy over the look that appears borrowed from, you know, every holiday catalog photo ever taken? And yet the fashion piece reached such high levels of excitement that the film temporarily changed its official Twitter account name to “Chris Evans’ Sweater Stan Account,” and brands like L.L. Bean were selling out of similar-looking styles.
There can be arguments made that the sweater wasn’t all that regular-looking — in The New Yorker, writer Rachel Syme did just that when she described the sweater as “the color of full-fat eggnog” and featuring “plackets of thick, braided, water-wicking yarn, as if a sheep had yielded its entire winter coat to enwrap Evans in comfort” — but I doubt that people would have looked at the sweater twice if they saw it hanging on a rack prior to the film. It's interesting then that the Knives Out costume designer, Jenny Eagan, who doesn’t remember which brand the sweater came from, chose it for the exact opposite reason that viewers became obsessed with it. She told The Hollywood Reporter, “The sweaters gave [the film] a cozy feeling. You couldn't detect anything.” All to say: We are more likely to suspect a femme fatale in a white dress than a spoiled man-child in a crewneck sweater. According to the same interview, Eagan chose the color to portray the fact that “wealthy people can always wear white — nothing ever gets dirty” — which is not a subtle wink given the movie’s plot. The wholesome sweater seems to project an aura of trustworthiness; I would listen to Evans’ manic Ransom even though all signs point to doing... just the opposite. Yes, Evans being the one wearing it aside (I think).
Another innocuous knit that gets brought up year after year is the white semi-turtleneck fisherman’s sweater Billy Crystal wears as Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally…, with dad jeans and sneakers, two normcore staple, no less. Here, too, it’s meant to show that Harry is a regular guy who can be trusted, as he is helping Meg Ryan’s Sally move a rug. This image matters to the ending of the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic comedy: While Harry has caused Sally emotional anguish over the course of their relationship, he’s just human and, as such, makes mistakes. He’s the type of guy viewers want to believe will change and come to his senses in the end.
Cameron Diaz wears a white sweater when her workaholic L.A. executive character goes to the bucolic English countryside after a bad breakup in 2006’s The Holiday. Trying to blend into her Surrey surroundings, Diaz’s Amanda wears a very good cream-colored chunky sweater with sweatpants and a beanie. (If you don’t remember the look, it’s probably because her glorious Dior shearling coat overpowered everything in the film’s fashion arsenal.) And while it’s impossible for her character’s oversized personality to blend into the background anywhere, let alone the quiet countryside, it’s telling that the article of clothing she uses to try is a sweater.
While the fascination with Evans’ sweater, Cuomo’s polo shirts, and Kornacki’s khakis can be traced to the same feeling of familiarity, the timing and circumstances couldn’t feel more different between this year and last. Normcore — at its simplest, a self-aware (and, despite appearances, highly stylized) choice to dress like everyone else and their dad — has been on the rise for more than half a decade. But, since the pandemic took hold, all fashion uniforms were thrown out the window, as we’ve all learned how to dress again for our new lifestyle. While many opted for sweatpants as means of staying comfortable while trapped indoors, others tapped into nostalgic trends like tie-dye, bought house dresses, and wore lingerie as outerwear. And while certain anti-fashion staples (clogs, Baggies, etc.) have fared even better in lockdown than before it, others like khakis have found little room in our new WFH lives that don’t see us doing things we used to, like taking in-person lunch meetings or visiting extended family during the holidays.
It makes sense then that, in a time when stress was at an all-time high, the future of the pandemic uncertain, and the country divided, it was appealing (and frankly comforting) to see something as simple as a pair of pants from a recognizable brand on someone as calm and reassuring as Kornacki. So, sure, maybe we were driven mad over the course of the five days (make it four years) leading to the 2020 presidential election results. But can you blame us? Or maybe the khakis do, in fact, just look that good since the last time we’ve seen them.