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February 03, 2004

You Already HAVE My Lunch Money

There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing nerd status elevated from wallflower to fashionista, but, as a genuine nerd, I take exception to the application of the term “nerdy” to "super sexy, super fun, super slutty" clothing. Anyone who’s attended a ‘They Might Be Giants” concert knows that nerd fashion is a more a byproduct of getting dressed than a focused effort to look good. Converse High Tops, the official shoe of nerds, and a Hawaiian shirt should just about cover the basics, though a preference for black is not out of the question. Anyone who’s walked the halls of our local software companies, nesting grounds for nerds of all kinds, knows that their sloppy comfort wasn’t purchased in the alt-fashion shops on Capitol Hill.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s room for nerds to be sexy. Remember Thora Birch in Ghost World? Yeah, she was hot, but her sexiness was totally compromised by an awkward quality that epitomizes nerdiness. Seymour, the record guy played by Steve Buscemi? Now that was a nerd. Thing is, the trip from nerd to sexy usually implies some sort of transformation. The sexy librarian is a prime archetype – sort of like Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman. Or, Lisabella in Last Tap Dance in Springfield – “she’s not plain, she’s BEAUTIFUL.” (Nerds love the Simpsons and quote it frequently.)

What these designers are pushing is not nerd chic – it’s art school style, no question. Contrived and wacky color combinations, post modern visual references to other sources, the apparent hand of the artist – and the manifestation of those things in the desire to create a visual sensation… those all the marks of art school style. Nerds live in their heads, not in their bodies, and fashion remains a mystery mostly unconsidered by nerds, except in the “Dude, she’s hot” style of deconstruction. And, unlike fashion designers, nerds read dictionaries before they start applying names to things. This fashion is anything BUT nerdy.

We nerds know you can push us down and steal our label if you really want to. Maybe we could set up your e-commerce server for free and then you’ll give us our name back. Maybe we do secretly wish we were cool and sexy like you. Then again, the co-opting of the nerd label makes us wonder if you don’t want to be like us. We probably only think that because we’re, well, nerds.

Posted by pam at February 3, 2004 12:54 AM | TrackBack
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It's interesting they are using the term "nerdy"--apparently several years of "geek chic" have worn out that term. Overall I agree with you, but I did think geek chic was a fair term for the popularity of Jhane Barnes suits among the digerati--they were taken by the computer-generated fabrics she used (cut, admittedly, along art-school lines).

I think "nerd fashion" has gotten mixed up in the feeble PI writer's mind with "nerd rock," which is not exactly nerdy. Think Nerf Herder, Harvey Danger, Moxy Fruvous, etc.--bands that are outré and outsiderish in an overly literate, wryly earnest kind of way. These are bands who lost their lunch money, but avoided getting beaten up because they made the bullies laugh. Anyway, the fashion profiled is the kind of stuff that gets a nerd-rock crowd excited-- which as you point out does not necessarily have any authentic nerd cred.

So basically, I'd argue this article is really about the fact that old-school nerds can't even get invited to the party held in their name--more evidence that real life is just high school with more money.

Am I making any sense?

Posted by: jay on February 3, 2004 09:58 AM

You're spot-on with the distinction between nerd rock and nerd style, Jay. Though I'd say that Jhane Barnes' clothes would not fall under the "nerd fashion" umbrella. She might BE a nerd, but her clothes aren't nerdy at all. She used modern tools to create pretty mainstream stuff, so even if it was adopted by the digerati, it would be adopted by the biz dev and marketing folks, not by the nerds in the server room. (Wired called her a fashion nerd, an oxymoron, I think.) Plus, once again, there's that transformation thing. Her technical patterns have been used to create something else. Still, the nerd's not wearing the pattern - he's wearing the t-shirt with the code used to generate the pattern.

The husband asked me if the definition and general packaging of what a nerd is hasn't changed since I was a youthful nerd, full of fear and anxiety, but when I flipped through my mental contacts file sorting on 'nerd' (finding examples in most age groups, one at 13 - nose in book, all the time, one at 22 - showed up at my house in the most ill-fitting suit I've ever seen, one at 28 - library, library, library, go outside, already!...) I realized that the nerds I know now are just as nerdy and fit the same profile as the nerd I was at 13.

'Nerd Cred' would be a great band name.

Posted by: pam on February 3, 2004 11:22 PM
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