A Few Things I’ve Noticed About Geek Fashion

This is a short list of links with some brief observations I felt like sharing. (Some of this information is likely going into a paper to be revised for journal submission shortly.)

1. Gaming clothing seems to be the largest category of overtly geek-branded apparel.

Sure, just about every comic store you go into has Punisher t-shirts, but those shirts aren’t necessarily being sold on “nerdy clothing” websites, or actively being linked to by websites that tend to broadly market themselves as geeky/nerdy. (I’ve always been fascinated by how commenters react when gaming blogs dish up posts on gaming shirts.)

Why gaming? I suppose it’s the geek activity that has the most crossover appeal into mainstream audiences, especially thanks to broader nostalgia value that 20- to 30-somethings find in retro gaming merchandise. That sense of nostalgia fits very well with the trend in contemporary fashion to make pre-worn “vintage”-looking t-shirts—the “Salvation-Army-cum-Urban-Outfitters” look.

Sci-fi movies also have crossover appeal with mainstream audiences, but I guess there are fewer sci-fi “classics” known to the general populace in film than video game “classics.” I do know that Urban Outfitters currently has some vintage-looking Star Wars shirts in stock, though.

2. Geeky tees seem a good match for user-generated content.

I’ve noticed that Threadless has always had the occasional nerdy product, but a bunch seemed to pop up in rapid succession for awhile. They also seemed, to me, to take on a similar tone to the shirts at more specifically geek-marketed sites, like ThinkGeek and J!NX.

Sites like J!NX have always promised some reward if you come up with an idea for a shirt and they use it, but isn’t really as built into their business model to the same extent as Threadless. Now, though, Nerdy Shirts is apparently adopting the Threadless business model, more fully embracing the idea of selling user-generated clothing.

This model kind of makes sense for geek stores, in some ways, considering that it’s often the most hardcore fans who both want clothing proclaiming their interests and want to make stuff related to their interests. The question, I think, is whether other sites can provide visitors with the feeling that even those whose shirts don’t get picked still get something out of participating and submitting. Threadless, being more designer/illustrator driven, at least offers the promise of feedback and communication with fellow designers. Fans who don’t feel like being a designer is part of their identity might not care as much about this element.

3. ‘Geek’ is sometimes used to refer to a hipster with a certain style.

Or perhaps I should say that a ‘hipster’ is a geek with a certain style..? Anyway, I have noticed a few online stores that mention somewhere in their written copy that they are for “geeks,” but have a much more fashion- and trend-conscious bent than that term might normally imply. See, for example, Your Eyes Lie (“For Freaks, Geeks, Jocket Sluts and Suzy Creamcheese”).

Some sites, meanwhile, kind of straddle the lines between hipster stores, joke tee stores, and more narrowly branded geeky tee stores, like Tees My Body” (for “dirty, nerdy geeks” in search of a “vintage-looking funny tee”), Noisebot (which has an entire “geek” category alongside “sports,” “politics,” and others), and Busted Tees (which has a “geek” shirt and a “lambda lambda lambda” shirt referencing Revenge of the Nerds).

I guess this is further evidence for the oft-claimed point that “anybody can be a geek nowadays.” Is there any tension there, though? Do some geeks resent that anybody can be a geek, or just that jocks can now claim to be geeks? (I know there is some resentment there. Ask me sometime about the “jock simulator” pitch at PAX.)

4. Nothing says “I’m a geek” like getting some ink.

For the young hipster geek afraid to commit (or just looking for a lark), Geekadelphia reports that Urban Outfitters now offers temporary tattoos for geeks. In the comments following that Geekadelphia post, however, Alex of Dangerously Awesome reminds us that “real geek ink” is cooler.

I’ve linked to some geeky tattoos here before, but I think I missed Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium. It features a mix of contributors; as one the tattoo-owner in one post notes, “I’m not a scientist by trade, but I am, in fact, a huge nerd.”

I feel like the geek tattoos I see more than any others are science tattoos and gaming tattoos, perhaps in descending order. That makes a certain sense to me: Science notation will likely remain unchanging for the duration of the tattoo owner’s life span, and most of the gaming tattoos I see are of retro games already, so they too have a claim to a certain sort of timelessness. And both, of course, make a sort of bid for authenticity of the wearer—”I have this special knowledge” or “I was there before games were big.”

Then again, I haven’t seen a lot of comic book tattoos, but something tells me there may be more Superman “S” shields inked on people than gaming tattoos of any sort. Does it “count” as a geeky tattoo if you weren’t doing it out of geek pride?

7 thoughts on “A Few Things I’ve Noticed About Geek Fashion

  1. I suppose I see things like the rise geek ink and clothing as just another way of watering down the culture. (The discerning reader will, no doubt, note that I’ve participated in both of these self-indulgent bastardizations myself, but whatchagonnado?)

    At the same time, these things serve as a cultural barometer; the fact that I’m not the only guy with a D20 tat, not to mention the fact that others with them actively sought me out, really says a lot about the social cohesion that these things afford. Sure, they can be a shameless cash-in for those not in the know who simply want a little of that nerd coin, but they can also serve as touchstones or, perhaps more importantly, personal affirmations of one’s inherent geekitude.

  2. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about these things since I’m in the industry, a few comments:

    Re #1: There is a difference betweeen visibility and sales, at least to some extent, and it’s hard to say for sure without knowing sales figures. My feeling is that gaming shirts are a big chunk of the market, but some of what is driving that is general crossover between computer geek and gamer geek. Gamer geek t-shirts also frequently have a more aesthetic, bright color / logo type of look, which is also more accessible and popular.

    Re #2: “User generated content” or “crowdsourcing” is obviously a big part of the Web 2.0 trend, where websites of all persuations are trying to engage their readers / customers / users by providing something more interactive. I think this pops up more and more now as a general theme and I don’t know that geek t-shirts are ‘extra’ suited for this trend more than other topics. I think however there are many different levels of approaching this… hardcore users will always make suggestions whether or not there is an ‘official’ mechanism for doing so. On the other end, a site like Threadless is intrinsically structured around providing an interactive experience to users around contributing and rating. In the middle of that range, this type of thing can often run along a double-edged sword.. either not enough participation to make it worthwhile, and/or turning off designers by coming off with too much of a “work for hire” feel.

    Re #3: Very true. My feeling is that this is actually a cross-over between what I would call “retro 80’s”, which has been popular for some time now, and the early days of the computing and gaming eras, like Atari and so on. I think the 80s nostalgia is big now amount younger people who didn’t live it the first time around, and additionally, ‘geek’ is a lot less negative to them as a label in general.

    Re #4: Speaking from the science side of things, I think there is some crossover but not too much yet. Obviously the ‘computer/gamer’ side of geek far outnumbers the science side thus far, just in terms of general accessibility and the number of people who participate as part of their professional lives vs. hobbies. As for ‘timelessness’, there was a funny anecdote on one of those science tattoo discussions. Apparently a physicist got a retro-style atom tattoo on his leg, and the next day was playing on a sports team with other scientists. Someone approached him and said, “the Bohr model? Please.” or something to that effect. I thought it was pretty funny to get dissed for having the ‘wrong’ atomic model tattooed on your leg.

  3. Re #2, Geeks are over-represented online, so they tend to have a disproportional influence on “Web 2.0” sites (e.g., Wikipedia.)

  4. Z.:
    I’m really fascinated by this idea of “nerd coin” (which I’ve called “geek cred” at times, and which sounds like what some academics call “subcultural capital,” directly making a parallel to money and transferable value).

    But here’s my question: Who are the posers trying to convince that they have nerd coin—nerds, or non-nerds? What’s the benefit of convincing nerds you’re one of them, and is this different from the benefit of convincing others you’re kind of nerdy?

    Good points, and I love the Bohr model anecdote. (But if it’s good enough to tattoo onto Dr. Manhattan‘s forehead, it’s good enough for me.)

    Also a good point. Hence we see a disproportionate number of stories about sci-fi coming up on (not-officially-geeky) news aggregators, and why there is more information on Wikipedia about the X-Men than about many foreign nations’ governments.

  5. I actually think that parallel between clout and capital is paramount, as by becoming vested in the “nerd lifestyle” you’re also becoming part of this ever-growing nerd market. It’s a demographic – or maybe a cross-section of a number of demographics – that seems to be developing some pull. I know we’ve all marked how everything from soft drinks to politics seems to be becoming more and more nerd-centric, with energy drinks marketed to gamers and political figures looking to pull in the Internet-savvy nerd vote.

    I believe what we’re witnessing is this phenomenon wherein people see it fairly easy to buy into that nerd lifestyle. By definition, it’s a bit of a ragtag confederation of disparate individuals and elements, and as such the “secret handshake” ain’t so secret. Nerds are beginning to represent a sort of punk rock-flavor brand of anti-hip that is almost bulletproof. With geek chic, anything that’s nerdy marks the conspicuous consumer as bearing a keen self-awareness as an outsider, while anything that’s cheesy can be easily laughed off as ironic. It’s a sub-culture that is almost uniquely accessible; anyone can sit at the geek table.

  6. Re:4 Having a comic related tat I have seen a lot of comics related tattoos on the internet. I also know that one of the people at the studio I went to actually specializes in comic tattoos. Maybe there are more of them than you think there are. As for reasons I can’t help there, I’m pretty sure I span that line myself. I can say that I have never seen a picture of any tat like mine and that I don’t have mine posted anywhere on the internet. It is for me and not the masses.

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