No fewer than three people alerted me to this article. A spider dress is of course an amazing idea, beautifully executed, and represents a really inspiring instance of wearable technology. Technology however is far from the only exciting fashion thing happening in the world today (Sonia Rykiel’s Pre-Fall 2013 collection, anyone?) Yet this is the only thing my friends on the geekier side noted – it was on io9, but the interesting thing here is really the whole geeks and fashion interaction.
Sure, there is the SF/tech aspect to the spider dress, and this is obvious. But besides the clearly techy things, nerd fashion statements do veer decidedly into less-than-subtle territory – behold the preponderance of corsets. And historical garb. And basically every fashion statement is a dress-up, clearly delineated from the daily uniforms of jeans and tees.
Part of it is probably because fashion is still at its root perceived as deeply feminine, and geeks are notorious for despising al things traditionally feminine – from the cult of technology to women often trying to be “one of the guys” (of which I wrote before, like here); in that regard they are not different from the rest of the society, but traditionally feminine women are often less visible in geekdoms, and I won’t even start on the whole “fake nerd girl” thing because ugh. There is also of course contempt for the mainstream, and fashion is a very mainstream form of non-verbal communication. So out of this confluence, we get a group of people who are not simply uninterested in fashion but contemptuous of it.
And then there is another thing: “social ineptness”, at least self-professed, is almost a point of pride or at least identity in much of geek culture (just how many times the whole “But geeks are socially inept! He was just flirting!” thing gets trotted out during various con sexual harassment dust-ups?) Attempting to be an isolated culture, mainstream language (verbal and not; I was actually called a “mundane” at my first World fantasy Con, which was funny) is treated as an imposition, and people just can’t be bothered with mundane rules and communication etc. Yet, they do recognize the importance of communication – but most are not particularly fluent in many of its forms.
Fashion is such a language – many geeks don’t speak it, yet they need some of its tools. And trying to speak a language one is not fluent in of course ensures that there is no subtlety in it. “Sexy” becomes corsets – as exaggerated a statement as one can make, while a subtle statement to the same effect could involve a lace collar peeking from under a masculine jacket. Fashion statements become the loud and the obvious, because it is impossible to speak the language you don’t know with any finesse. Even gender-identity related fannish events, which could be an interesting exploration of gender presentation, often end up as a bunch of men in dresses and women in badly fitted suits borrowed from male relatives – that is, campy cross-dressing using the most obvious markers of binary gender, instead of a range of gender identities and accompanying presentations. The commentary on fluidity of gender and androgynous dressing is, ironically, much more nuanced and interesting in actual fashion magazines (see here, here and here.)
One can of course argue that all sorts of costuming are ways of dressing up without looking like you’re taking any of this seriously – personally, I never liked costuming and find RenFaires puzzling; but I can see how for people who reject mainstream fashion, costuming can be a way of playing with clothes without looking like they’re buying into the cultural narrative. It does however serve a function different from the everyday dressing, which is about communicating with other people. Costuming is kind of the opposite of that – a refusal to enter a conversation, an attempt to delineate that you are not interested in talking to anyone in this century or this reality. I am however mostly intrigued by dressing as communication – and this is where many geeks have to resort to over-the-top gestures in order to be understood. So corsets, which are a fashion staple at many cons are just that – an attempt to speak in a foreign language. Whatever sense of the empowerment experienced by the wearer likely comes from the realization that they are communicating rather than any inherent power of sexy dressing.
I am of course not arguing that geekdom should immediately transform itself into a buffet of fashion plates – merely, that realizing that dressing is a form of communication is worthwhile, and recognizing the common signifiers could be a way of exerting control over this communication. And as cool as spider dresses are, mastering another language is pretty amazing too.