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Fashion : Nerds Getting Their Revenge in Grand Style

June 16, 1989|MARY COREY | The Baltimore Sun

For decades, schoolyard bullies yanked the clip-on tie from his neck, stole his pocket protector and broke his black-rimmed glasses so often that only reams of tape held the frames together.

But the archetypal, Grade A, never-met-a-math-equation-he-didn't-like nerd--who shunned sports the way other students avoid homework--is getting the ultimate revenge.

He's becoming hip.

Sort of.

In malls, nightclubs and classrooms nationwide, many young adults are emulating the straight-arrow style of the math and science whiz ridiculed for so long. Shirts are being buttoned to the collar. Pant legs end before the ankle to reveal--egads!--white socks. Thick black-framed glasses cover eyes that often have 20/20 vision.

"The nerd begins in the 1950s as a victim and he rises in the '80s to be a hero," says Richard Martin, a fashion expert.

But if there's one thing that separates today's chic nerd from his 1950s predecessor, it's attitude.

Historically, the nerd has been portrayed as socially maladroit, while his more recent counterpart wears his mismatched plaids and high-water pants with cool authority.

"You need to be very self-confident and somewhat conceited to do this," says Christopher Pallo, a 25-year-old art director with a Baltimore publishing company who abandoned his preppy ways for nerd chic several years ago. "You know that you're not dressed like everyone else, but you still look good."

Keith Huppert agrees. "It's calculated, it's extreme. The things are often all cotton, linen or silk," says the 35-year-old furniture store co-owner. "You wouldn't see somebody trying to pull this off in a brown textured polyester suit."

Witness the birth of the neo-nerd.

In composite form, he's an artsy intellectual, a young city dweller. He shops secondhand and listens to musicians like the Smiths, the Proclaimers and Billy Bragg.

(Experts agree, by the way, that nerds and neo-nerds are strictly male phenomena. "But I'm sure Madame Curie was a nerd," says one.)

The pejoratives for outcasts date to the early '20s, when geek first surfaced as carnival slang for a snake charmer and later came to mean a sideshow freak who bit the head off a live chicken, according to Robert Chapman, author of the "New Dictionary of American Slang."

Evolution of Abuse

Nerd followed in the early '50s, with dork coming into vogue a decade later. Although the '80s have brought us dweeb , Chapman sees geek making a comeback among teen-age name-callers.

" Geek has been around for a long time, but it's finally coming into its own," says the lexicographer, who saw the word used a dozen years ago by students at Drew University in New Jersey to berate their college president.

Tracing the evolution of the neo-nerd fashion trend, however, involves more guesswork. Martin first noticed shirts being buttoned to the collar in the early '80s, after art students grew tired of the contrived fuchsia hair and black leather of the punk movement.

In a sense, the trend had been anticipated by new wave rockers such as Elvis Costello and David Byrne of the Talking Heads, whose underground music helped introduce neo-nerd fashion to the mainstream.

The Flickering Image

TV also deserves credit for upgrading the image of the geek. More than a decade ago, Bill Murray and the late Gilda Radner sounded the nerd alert on "Saturday Night Live" by playing the love-struck dweeb couple Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca. Today, Elvis Costello, wearing his signature geeky glasses and clunky work shoes, takes his latest single, "Veronica," to the top of video charts on MTV. And Pee-wee Herman is transformed from dork to comic darling on Saturday morning TV.

Mike MacDonald, a former scientific computer programmer and self-professed outcast, has made a career out of the belief that "everybody, at one time or another, has felt like a nerd." Nearly three years ago, he created Rent-A-Nerd, an Illinois-based company that sends dorky-looking characters to ham it up at bachelorette parties, birthday celebrations and even office meetings with such quips as "I long for the day our pocket protectors meet" and "Hey, babe, want to floss in the moonlight?"

What has really surprised this entrepre-nerd, as he calls himself, is the popularity of his characters, especially his alter ego, Hornby K. Fletcher.

"Even the hippest people think Hornby's cool," says MacDonald, 29. "Isn't that an oxymoron--a cool nerd? But he's been called cool because he's totally satisfied with himself."

Respect for Brains

Chapman attributes the turnaround to a new reverence for intelligence.

"The cycle that we capsulized with the Me Generation, which was extremely hedonistic and basically anti-work, may be turning around a bit. Now that we're losing our primacy in technology, we've tried to stimulate pride and sound the alarm. The one thing that has happened has been that the image of the eggheady guy with the helicopter cap on his head has changed to someone who isn't quite as repulsive."

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