Yesterday, at the café down the street from me, I watched as a guy wearing wide-legged wool trousers, loafers and a tweed coat ambled around, occasionally raising his phone to his ear — though it was unclear if he was ever actually speaking to anyone on it. Nearby, a woman wearing loose faded jeans, blaring white tube socks and platform tennis shoes stood by the barista’s counter. As she was waiting for her order, scanning the room for an open seat, her gray athletic sweater, oversized and overwashed, floated about her upper body.
Across the room, an older man with wiry hair was sporting shredded Vans with a loosely buttoned, softly wrinkled Oxford shirt that contrasted nicely underneath a slightly slouchy suit jacket. He sat in the corner, occasionally lifting his head from his book. (Dostoevsky, maybe?) Below his waist, he wore Adidas track pants, zipped precisely halfway at the hem, spilling over his Birkenstocks, just so. And exactly as everyone else inside this hip coffee shop, his clothes were the perfect encapsulation of what Tom, a denizen of the Male Fashion Advice (MFA) subreddit defines as peak café core, or “a selection of outfits worn by people in cafés or without a doubt on their way to or from a café.”
If that sounds vague enough to be all-encompassing but also sort of relatable, here’s Tom again with a few more pre-requisites. “To me, café core looks like the comfiest outfit you can pull together while still turning the heads of a few fellow patrons,” he explains.
Really, café core is about dressing intentionally to a non-occasion. It’s the visual personification of sitting in a public place, by a window with a good view of the rest of the room, pretending to work on something, when really you’re mostly watching the rest of the world operate around you — all while knowing that you’re being watched as well.
Hallmarks of café core include sweats, oversized pieces — think: cable-knit sweaters and baggy cardigans — and winter textures like wools and corduroys. “In terms of colors, anything that resembles a cappuccino is a big plus,” Tom says. “Outside of that, earthier tones fit right in. Browns, dark greens, navy, cream are all ideal. Big flowing coats lend themselves to pulling the outfit together and can smarten up sweats instantly.”
“I do this,” one MFA subscriber writes. “Every Friday, I try different cafés and it gives me a reason to dress up and look nice for myself.”
Another redditor notes, “I go to the same [café] over and over, and through the years I notice the regulars, and how some of them evolved in terms of their style. There’s this one guy who was head-to-toe Rick Owens for a couple of years, and just recently turned into a tech ninja.”
Tom, for his part, lives in South Korea, which boasts a robust café culture. There, he finds himself appreciating the carefree outfits of people who wear sweatpants, New Balances and a big, patterned wool coat all at once. “Birkenstock Bostons are having a moment here as well, which I think perfectly encapsulates the café-core aesthetic,” he says. “They’re leather, so they instantly have a dressier factor to them. But they’re slip-ons, which bring them down to a level of nonchalant cozy chic.”
Though café core has been around for a while, Tom says numerous lockdowns have played a role in elevating cafés to a slightly more coveted social event. “When I had no good reason to leave my apartment, the local café was this perfect opportunity to dress up a little while maintaining my newfound lockdown-induced appreciation for comfortable clothes,” he says. “The biggest pitfall to watch out for is looking like a slob.”
Café core is about wanting to wear something soft and loose while also being recognized for the outfit you managed to put together in a situation when no one asked you to dress up. It’s not, per another MFA subscriber, about being “conventionally attractive in a social sense — that’s not the purpose of these outfits.”
More fundamentally, café core means you’re contributing to the scene inside a coffee shop or even a bookstore, but doing so comfortably. It’s a reminder that for creative folks in cable-knit sweaters and oversized houndstooth coats, even coziness can offer an opportunity for curation. Besides, what’s more comforting than the ability to turn heads without trying?