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issue 5 (2015)
Editor in Chief
International Editorial Board
Fashion Convergence guest editor
Antonella Mascio and Junji Tsuchiya
Editorial Advisory Board
Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli
Simona Segre Reinach
Elisa Tosi Brandi
Alessia Di Paolo
Translations and revisions
Alessia Di Paolo
Scuola di Lettere e Beni Culturali Università di Bologna – Dipartimento di Scienze per la Qualità della Vita – Campus di Rimini
via Santa Chiara 40 - 47900 Rimini (Italy)
© 2015, Edizioni Pendragon
Via Borgonuovo, 21/a – 40125 Bologna
First digital edition 2016
No parts of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of Pendragon.
Alessia Di Paolo translated from Italian into English: the editorial, the introduction, essays by I. Tolic, A. Di Paolo, the article by M.F. Stella, the interviews section, the review by E. Tosi Brandi, A. Manzato, the exhibition review by A. Di Paolo, A. Malfitano, E. Vai, I. Letteriello, L. Ferrari, the flash session and, from English into Italian: the essay by S. Medved, the exhibition review by S. Segre Reinach.
In continuation with the editorial choices of the past volumes, the fifth issue of ZoneModa Journal –edited by myself together with Junji Tsuchiya – collects the efforts of the entire editorial staff. In particular we followed two directions : the research on more innovative topics connected to the fashion universe and the scientific validation of the review. On the research side, we focused our attention on a still unexplored relation, that between ”Fashion” and “Convergence”: the attempt has been to investigate the ways in which the actual communication platforms affect the creation and the valorization of media product related to fashion, besides the constitution of new forms of social relations.
What emerges from the issue seems to highlight how the fashion universe becomes perfectly part of the contest of the convergence culture (Jenkins 2006): the projects analyzed in the volume surely contribute to the evolution of the view on the use of media languages, which are also changing because of the influence of fashion, open to new possibilities and formats.
To obtain the qualitative validation of the review, we have been all involved on several fronts. In particular, we started a relationship with the Italian agency in charge: the National Agency for the Evaluation of University and Research (ANVUR). The result was positive: the scientific nature of ZoneModa Journal has for now been placed in the areas 10 (Antiquity, philological-literary and historical-artistic sciences) and 11 (Historical, philosophical, didactic and psychological sciences). In particular, Class A has been rewarded for the L1 sector (languages, literatures and English and Anglo-American cultures). We are pleased for this achievement, which we consider the starting point of a valorization process of ZoneModa Journal: we keep working for a wider validation, including other fields such as sociology, semiotics, architecture, traditionally close to Fashion Studies.
Another important item we would like to communicate with pleasure concerning our permanent attention to the internationalization of the review, is the entrance of Pamela Church-Gibson (University of the Arts, London, UK) in the review scientific committee, an important personality in the Fashion Studies scenario who enthusiastically accepted to join our project.
At the closing of this brief editorial, we are announcing the next issue, ZoneModa Journal 6, Future Presents (2016). The theme is hereby introduced by its curators Flaviano Celaschi and Ines Tolic:
“By the end of 1975, Buckminster Fuller held a set of lectures entitled “Everything I know”. Going through his many projects, in that occasion he told about his contribution to build the future: the Dymaxion house, the geodetic domes, the projects for Manhattan, with the Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs. With the idea that we cannot really change if we only work on the present time, Fuller tried all his life to anticipate the time, creating alternative futures or at least better than the present he knew.
Taking inspiration from Fuller’s ideas and futurists close to him, the 6th issue of ZoneModa Journal (2016) aims to represent a meeting point between disciplines characterized by the need, with varying intensity, to create and anticipate events, evolutions or needs (including design, architecture, fashion and communication). Putting aside the visionary projects, already heavily debated, the volume aims to explore the theme of the possibile futures adopting a concrete and effective approach focusing on methods of prospection and anticipation techniques, as much as the prefiguration of cases which the future will or must follow.”
Antonella Mascio and Junji Tsuchiya
In the present age, dominated by the convergent culture (Jenkins 2006), media appear more and more necessary in the circulation of narrations, imaginaries, collective passions and taste forms. The erosion of boundaries between production and consumption determines an increasing relation (and interdependence) among media industries, products and audiences. The heart of this system is the Internet – complex and global meta medium (Colombo 1993) – capable of establishing the possibilities of connection between both contents and people. We can think, for example, at the way Viktor&Rolf employ communication tools: the connection between different languages – web with movies, recreational with fashion show worlds – finds in the Internet one of the most profitable landing places, so much so that they call their own fall-winter 2015-2016 website The World Round Web (www.viktor-rolf.com). It is a convergent and creative communication strategy, in which the message (or the messages) to the audience are defined according to different levels, from the institutional one (the website for example) to those closer to users, such as the Facebook pages, where the two designers publish (also) their fans' posts. It is a procedure typically approved by brands and fashion griffes by now: according to different cases, as well as to different aims, the convergence makes the most of itself in an innovative and original way. Another recent case related to fashion world is Burberry’s The Art of Trech projects (http://artofthetrench.burberry.com) conceived together with the most famous fashion blogger in the world ((Scott Schuman http://www.thesartorialist.com) with the purpose of involving the brand’s enthusiasts in an active dynamic. Such possibilities pivot on different levels and aim especially to stimulate users’ interest.
The ongoing change involves production as much as distribution and consumption of media and fashion products; it has implications in users' social life, defining new ways of contact and relation. Media indeed represent privileged places for the contemporary experience (Meyrowitz 1986, Boccia Artieri 2012): their role is no longer limited to the mereaspect of mediation between one or more realities that they “recall”, tell and reproduce, but it affects the social environment, too, through digital environments where users meet each other and create new forms of relation.
In this framework – mainly characterized by the circulation of technological resources of connection and audiences’ activity, through new communication deals between senders and addressees – fashion takes on new shapes and develops new languages, amplifying the communication dimensions already achieved back in time and insinuating in discursive paths procedures still less attended so far. It also takes part in the success of movie and TV productions through the use of refined outfit, contributing to the creation of complex atmospheres that enrich narration: the clothes used in the media products represent the keys of access to the fiction world, they define the characters and place them in the spatial, temporal and cultural context. As an example, there are some recent successful movies such as The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013) and Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014), or quality drama designed for an adult audience like Mad Men (AMC 2007 – 2015), The Americans (FX 2013 - ), House of Cards (Netflix 2013 -), or successful TV series for younger spectators, like Gossip Girl (2007 – 2012 The CW) or Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family 2010 -), and others.
The audience has the chance to track down and identify the items showed in the media products, through online platforms used by enthusiastic users, or through the use of dedicated websites (for example http://www.looklive.com). So fashion in fiction enters the audiences’ conversations, the blogs, Facebook and Instagram pages, where the users chat about characters’ clothes, shoes, accessories.
In this volume, Ariela Mortara and Geraldina Roberti propose an interesting study on fashion blogs, which through netnographic research (Kozinets, 2002, 2006) underline the sharing & showing aspects typical of communication 2.0 and capable of also highlighting their success.
Dressing becomes, in many media products, a real performance per se, that represents a specific transition: the one between the fiction and the possible return to reality. We can probably say that the relation, once well-defined and distinct between “in” fiction and “off” fiction, is sometimes replaced by a strong continuity line between “in” and “off”, to the extent of producing effects both in the very fiction and in real world. In a diametrically opposite position we can find examples like The Iconoclasts, a project by Prada(http://theiconoclasts.prada.com) that aims to point at an experimentation and meeting point between fashion and other worlds, raising fashion to hyper-real possibilities, through the creations of famous costume designers (Milena Canonero, Arianne Phillips, Michael Wilkinson and Tim Martin) that during the various exhibitions (New York, London, Paris, Beijing) highlighted a strong contamination between the different dreamlike visions and the utopian fashion dream.
Considering these suggestions we decided to dedicate this issue of ZoneModa Journal to the exploration of the paths defined by the convergent dynamics, with the purpose of enhancing aspects concerning the communication innovation and the presentations with a social and symbolic value. One one hand, indeed, brands and fashion griffes seem to be always more immersed in the coordinatef communication process, thought to be useful for the different available platforms; on the other hand, considering their kaleidoscopic form, cultural and media products seem always more ready to different readings, also contemplating the fashion route.
In their turn, the regular consumers of fashion products, in the perspective of contemporary reflective process, result to be “the subject who desires not only objects and other subjects, but also alternative forms of subjectivity (Edwards 2011, trad. it. 2012, p. 235) and, through the observation, the research and the imitation of clothes, sometimes they find the chance to express themselves. Media and fashion seem both to enlarge their social range, using especially the language of images, taste, stereotypes, suggesting new reference models to the audience, as we can read in the articles of the volume we are introducing.
According to Romana Andò and Luisa Valeriani, indeed, “fashion represents an ideal touch point between content and audience” where the engagement of audiences themselves pushes “to an enlargement of the consumption dimension beyond the individual moment of watching” (in the volume). Their study on The Big Bang Theory (2015 -) gave much food for thought with relation to the audiences’ practices and the nerd/geek subcultural style represented in the text – a masculine gendered style, where there seems not to be a female equivalent.
Paola Brembilla’s essay observes the relation between power suits and prêt-à-porter, considering in particular the clothes worn by Michelle Obama, American first lady and new style icon, who sometimes seems to be inspired by the TV series The Good Wife (CBS, 2009-). But the author’s discourse opens to more points of view, considering the very TV series currently in production, where the office suit appears as closely related to famous and recognizable griffes: “Let’s think for example to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal (ABC, 2012-) with her Dolce & Gabbana, Armani trousers and Prada bags; Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Boss outfit worn by Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in House of Cards (Netflix, 2013-); Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Honourable Woman (Sundance TV, 2014) and her Lanvin, Mulberry and Céline touches; it is also the case of some male characters, of whom the most impressive example is Harvey Specter in Suits (USA Network, 2011-), designed by Tom Ford.” (in the volume).
Among the TV series mentioned by the authors we can’t miss a detailed study on the fantasy world, through one of the most representative examples of the genre: Game of Thrones (GoT, HBO, 2011 -). Linda Felletti proposes a study on how the series influenced the fashion world. If it is true that “the Indian designer Manish Arora paid homage to Game of Thrones in the Ready to Wear Fall 2015 collection”, so just as much “body harnesses, leather clothes, gladiator belts and sandals (as those designed by Stella McCartney or Rodarte for Spring/Summer 2015 collection) are the perfect ingredients of a warrior woman style” (in the volume) to which the characters of the series are inspired.
In the TV universe, beside the TV series, fashion is employed in the factual, too. Anna Manzato analyses the fashion factual phenomenon, with the Italian core TV show Ma come ti vesti?!, broadcast by Real Time since 2008. The factual embodies the typical structure of the makeover, so a “story based on four phases: need/intervention of the sidekicks/transformation/approval of the transformation” in the volume that clearly concerns the change of style of the characters appearing on by the show.
The ideas that the authors of this volume of ZoneModa propose to discuss and analyze with respect to the Fashion-Convergence theme are many and not only related to TV examples. Laura Meraviglia suggested a tour from movies to television, including in her thinking the passage from costume designer to fashion designer, highlighting the importance of mass media screens for the Fashion System. As Alessia Di Paolo suggests, this is highlighted especially through the creation of a new genre, both for media and fashion industry: the Fashion Film. The movie language is used in the fashion narration by also adopting the Internet as a communication channel, pivoting on the typical times of YouTube. It is a “significant position shifting of fashion in the media” (in the volume): from the importance and the supremacy of the fashion catwalks in the glamour magazines of the Twentieth century, to the phenomena of the fashion blogs, of the relentless social networks, of the contemporary live streams, together with other combined and dynamic sources of online communication. This transfer becomes particularly clear when we consider specific examples, related to single brands, in order to underline the peculiarities of the phenomenon, as we read in the essay of Sergei Medvedev that analyzes Burberry as an example of “transmedia branding”.
The part related to the theme and the discussion on the fashion convergence ends with four papers dedicated to the complex relationship between fashion and museum: a relation that is more and more obvious and complex and characterized above all by the innovation of the different events. Specifically, Tiziana Barone invites the reader to a careful reflection on the Louis Vuitton’s Series2 exhibition, hosted in Rome at Palazzo Ruspoli (May 22nd – June 7th, 2015): a real, concrete, and at the same time cross-media performative experience.
Irene Guzman and Valentina Rossi analyzed the Balena Project example, the itinerant project by the artist Claudia Losi based on the symbolic potential of historical events related to the whale, the animal-archetype meant both as evidence and freak show phenomenon. The project, with the participation of fashion designer Antonio Marras too, “known for his interest for the local craftsmanship work, the collective memory and popular culture, as well as the universal structures of the fairy tale and the myth with a particular inclination for the suggestions derived from contemporary art” (in the volume), refers especially to an ancient craftsmanship, to the design “knowhow”.
Ines Tolic proposes a study on Prada spaces: different architecture, variable and not (always) commercial. The point is the very convergence they refer to: “are we sailing to a future made of new relational and programmatic complexity where there is no sense anymore for the distinction between commercial and non commercial spaces?” (in the volume). The answer seems to coincide with the provocation of Rem Koolhaas, hanging in the balance between intellectual life and large business (Sudjic 2002).
Antonella Giannone’s essay is wondering on the role of fashion exhibitions in the fashion world in particular, and in the media system in general. They should be considered as “deeply characteristic expressions of a fashion culture that arises and transforms itself in the media and between media, from the most traditional to the social networks”. A culture that, just for this intermediality, rewrites “fashion spaces and time, and at the same time owns spaces that are traditionally stranger to it, starting from the museum or the art gallery”(in the volume). The example carried by the author is the exhibition dedicated to Karl Lagerfeld, Modemethode, a retrospective of the German designer displayed at the Bonn’s Kunsthalle from March 28th to September 13th, 2015.
The convergence process is clearly going on in the media environment; it refers to the eternal connection – or addition as well – between art world and fashion universe, with all the changes that everyone brings with itself, opening, again, to other and new expressive forms.
Romana Andò, Luisa Valeriani
Fashion has become an essential element of television tales, both as object of narrative and when it acts as an accessory element in defining characters, situations, contexts, supporting the audience in decoding texts. However, its role does not cease with the fruition of a TV content: fashion, in fact, represents a perfect touch point between content and audience, as the audience's engagement forces the consumer experience beyond a specific viewing moment. The protagonists’ outfits, accessories, apparel become symbolic materials to be collected through fandom-like practices and used in daily self-representation. The text poaching phenomenon results in a constant detection activity aimed at fashion brands seen on the TV screen and in the ensuing outfit rebuilding by the audience.
This scenario particularly concerns those TV series which use fashion objects in an increasingly sophisticated and coherent way, to the point that fashion itself becomes the determining element for the success of the fictional products. Fashion brands, embedded within TV storytelling, act as catalysts of audience attention and encourage their loyalty and participation, becoming their fetish and allowing its appropriation. This process implies both the reification of the relationship with the cult character of TV series and the recognition of its transitional function for the audience. The aspirational dimension of this relationship between audience and characters ("want to be like her/him”) is rather evident, in this process, which results in all the activities of searching, poaching, buying, wearing that transform the cult object in a constant exercise of everyday self-representation. This happens even when the style is quite ordinary and the cult characters are those subjects conventionally stigmatised by society as "different".
The aim of this article is precisely to investigate a specific prototype of youth culture, the nerd or geek, highlighting their style evolution through media representations like films and in particular TV series. This is a widely studied field, especially since the phenomenon has gradually lost the initial subcultural connotations to turn into a mainstream definition, sometimes even cool, becoming the subject of academic attention also as a fashion phenomenon. More specifically our discussion will focus on The Big Bang Theory, the CBS sitcom, now (2015) in its ninth season, in which different types of nerds are crowning the nerd of nerds, Sheldon Cooper.
The case we chose to analyse is particularly significant both within the framework of fashion theory and within the fandom theory itself (and, obviously, cultural studies): first of all in fact, within the TV imagery we found significant traces of a subcultural style, expressed by dressing, grooming, interacting specific of the nerd/geek, while at the same time we worked on the overlaps and distinctions between the nerd/geek figures.
Moreover, the evolution of the television imagery built around the geek – also in its female version – have allowed us to tell the transformation of the geek style into a fashion trend, as it emerges from the crossover between fictional images and reality.
Relying on basic clothing, seemingly more suited to a private than a public context, mixed with no apparent policy or even undeniably inappropriate, the geek fashion has emerged as a form of refusal of fashion itself; or, more specifically, as an overcoming of fashion intended as knowledge of brands and styles and compositional skill in the look . Finally, in this process of transformation from a geek style to a fashion trend we highlighted the fans’ role in terms of appropriation, imitation and reworking on geek clothing and lifestyle: in other words fans work through those fast-fashion and low-cost products which make up the geek style itself and which they use to constantly manage their daily performativity.
First, we need to clarify the field before analysing the phenomenon. The concept of geek/nerd is widespread in an English-speaking and, more specifically, in an American context, where it has acquired a considerable cultural significance.
Although scholars tend to emphasise the nuances between the meanings of ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’, these two terms are essentially equivalent. Maybe, geek is being used more specifically to indicate a person who is passionate and addicted to something (video games, Star Trek, etc.) and in that sense we might assert that geek blurs into fan. However, the choice between one or the other term seems to us a matter of words, of personal taste, rather than evidence of a semantic difference. Sociologically speaking, the term makes sense as opposed to the dominant male social type, currently considered cool, that we shall call ‘jock’, just to emphasise the negative connotation of the word (as for the word ‘nerd’).
The definition of nerd is, at least originally, offensive, because its stereotype involves a total neglect, inappropriateness or even anachronism in clothing, a poor muscle shape, approximate hygiene, a lack of aptitude to social relationships, and an ongoing failure to attract the opposite sex. Moreover to be a nerd involves total commitment to study, the passion for abstruse themes (or seen as such), the large consumption of comics, science fiction, fantasy literature, and, more recently, video games, technology, digital culture: a patchwork of curious, alienating interests that are deviant to the must of ‘being successful and making money’.
This combination of techno-theoretical skills and social incompetence works well when applied to the nerd figure, especially within a dichotomous representation of society, where success comes to sportsmen, confident athletes who conquer girls through their bodies; to the winners of baseball or football competitions at university, to ‘Mad Men’ advertising experts, to those with managerial roles in commercial companies, who identify themselves more with the company itself than pursuing their own desires. In short, a society where jock is mainstream, and little matters if, at school, this role results in barefaced forms of nerd-bullying. The fundamental reason for this dichotomy is quite feasible: while the nerd is an outcast in various ways, yet subordinated and confined to unproductive roles, the jock is the winning male, since he produces money, value and ultimately capital.
When do things get complicated and does the ‘nerd’ word lose its negative notations to become even cool today? It is when technological and scientific research finally comes out of a closed laboratory and shows itself to society as a whole, becoming a mass digital breakthrough. It happens in the present, when stuff like Apple or Google become symbolic icons of value, giants in the world economy. That’s also when nerds like Steve Job become superheroes and moreover the dichotomy Superman / Clark Kent merges into a social and media hero who "thinks different”, earns billions of dollars and dresses in norm-core with turtleneck jumpers, jeans and sneakers.
Thinking different reshuffles dichotomies while blurring social roles. The redeeming dress – to be imitated as such – is not the eccentric cosplay costume to wear within the communities, nor the awkward dress of the geek columnist complete with pocket protector, nor the casual suit and tie worn by the capitalist; rather, it is the daily dress seemingly out of style, the casual, once indicative of nerd clothing always "out of place". Not by chance, the comics version of this dress dates back to the mid-nineties, when capitalism became the new digital economic power in the world and when the nerd Clark Kent was no longer presented as the awkward and introverted columnist mocked by his beloved Lois, but as the man who Lois accepted and even married.
At the turn of the millennium the advent of digital culture as an effective means of capital production accentuates the geek's excessive passion for something within the nerd identity through a transformation of his style; to the point that passion turns into source code hacking and the nerd/geek overlaps with the hacker culture.
Thus the nerd-geek-hacker incorporates the new values of sharing, connectivity, collaboration, which increase both creativity and unconditional devotion to the limit of social autism: these values, as reminded by Pekka Imanen (2001), are still different from Weber's capitalist ethic, which was the basis of the Founding Fathers, and more generally of the sense of community implicit in "we the Americans". We still have a “different" therefore, but more and more assimilated, incorporated, metabolised.
Nerd literature often mentioned the so-called "nerd pride" that Professor Gerald Jay Sussman, engaged in research on artificial intelligence at MIT since 1964, used to recommend to his students: the encouragement was not to worry about the pressure exerted by their fellow students but to try and become intellectuals instead. "I want every child to become a nerd, meaning someone who prefers to study and learn in order to compete for social dominance" (Hafner, 1993). This was a really significant recommendation in a country where the ex-jocks controlled, and still control, the economic and political power buttons, but where Bill Gates could become, since 1996 and for over a decade, the richest man in the world.
Therefore, the advance of technology and the rise of the digital in the global economy gradually involve a nerd normalisation and the transformation of the stereotype hypostatised by the media. Let’s discuss its impact on the cinema and later on TV.
In the beginning was Jerry Lewis.
In 1963 Jerry Lewis directed and starred in the main role of Prof. Julius Kelp in a film-parody of the R.L. Stevenson’s novel about Jekill and Hyde, The Nutty Professor (Paramount). Prof. Kelp is a nerd, an awkward academic, shy, neglected in clothing and physically unattractive, who seeks redemption through his double, the jock Buddy Love, handsome but arrogant. The film clearly shows a schizophrenic dichotomy which of course has its happy ending; however, the statement that the good nerd needs his double, vigorous and combative, in order to win the game is of interest to our discussion. The parody was so successful that in 1996 Eddie Murphy starred in a film with the same title, performing a corpulent university researcher who manages to beat his cunning alter ego.
The obesity issue refers to the origins of the "nerdiness" imagery, namely abnormalities or physical monstrosity. Not surprisingly, Jasmin Engelhart at Vienna University derives the spectacular presentation of physical abnormalities from the use of freaks in the 19th century, based on historical and sociological analyses of freak shows (Adams 2001; Bogdan 1988; and the fundamental Garland-Thomson 1996). Thomson’s thesis shared by Engelhart is that modern talk shows are reconfiguring sideshows (or freak-shows), because they point to both the wonder of the Other, and the freakiness performance - even psychological - of the Other, thus reassuring the spectators of their "normality". During the colonial period, maybe thanks to the Universal Expos, the freak was often a native American or a black woman for the white Aryan male spectator, and the otherness was racial, anthropological and cultural as well as pathological: in other words the freak confirmed the power of the "normal".
Over time, the show was refined and became “hip/square dialectic”, in the words of Christine Quail (2011). The case study chosen by Engelhart was titled The Nerd as the Other, and the argument is that “the practice of exhibiting ‘inept’ behaviour and psychological conditions for the entertainment of the audience also applies to the representations of nerds in reality shows and sitcoms” (Engelhart, 2012: 5)
It is not by coincidence that nerds appear in comedy shows, as we have seen starting from Jerry Lewis’s parodies. Before Murphy’s remake, for a whole decade, from 1984 to 1994, a series of four film portrayed even the Revenge of the Nerds (1984, 1987, 1992, 1994), where the Alpha Beta jocks – a football team of course – and the Tri-Lambda band of nerds fight through deadly jokes in their college. Provided with thick-rimmed glasses, a pocket protector in his extravagant shirt pocket, breeches, an annoying squeaky voice and a clumsy behaviour, Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) focuses on the stereotype of the intelligent nerd, whose skills obviously revolve around computer science and will help him in his quest for success, despite his rejection by society. Moreover in the third film, a nerd organised strike will paralyse the country and, later in the film, the spectator will discover that Stan, one of the odious Alpha Betas, has actually been a nerd, and a computer enthusiast, but unfortunately hampered by his parents in his studies.
At this point, the pattern begins to tip over: nerds clearly understand that a digital society needs them to produce capital and circulate money, but even more, the old cool pedagogy for anti-nerds athletes is counterproductive for the average American’s social and personal success.
And now we are ready to talk about the TV series.
The nerd, in fact, becomes popular as a comic character: in Family Matters (ABC, from 1989 to 1997) Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) with his inevitable braces is a terrific blunderer and troublemaker (“Did I do that?”) but also a kind-hearted person, unrequited lover and creator of devices impossible to build. Moreover, in Chuck (NBC, 2007-2012) the plot exceeds the comic genre arriving at a real spy story with suspense and emotions: here the protagonist Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) is a hacker more than a nerd, but he is also a spy involved in secret missions. His clothing ranges from sweatshirts and blue, brown or red t-shirts, to James Bond-like suits, short-sleeved white shirts and dark ties. His distinguishing feature, however, are the omnipresent black sneakers Chuck Taylor All-Stars.
Between these two extremes, geekiness was promoted by several other series together with cultural phenomena emerging from the contemporary economic globalisation and the trans-nationalisation of culture. These were the years when the new Japan removed the negative stigma of otaku youth subculture, which then moved away from being an underground phenomenon to become a cultural laboratory with its own aesthetics and a philosophy capable of connecting the great imperial tradition with pop icons, manga and new media.
The otaku are fixated on modelling, objects, computers, Eastern mythologies but also Western superheroes: they are, after all, creative fans, Japanese geeks. Why are we talking about them? Because of the nerd representation for the Japanese anime, more attention is given to these characters than to the comics and the Western media, since academic success in Japan is considered more highly than social success. In other words, this attitude is exactly the opposite of American mainstream. The overlap nerd/otaku, related to the global resonance acquired simultaneously by Japanese street style, ends up becoming cool (Segre Reinach 2006). And this process influences the geek-nerd-fan-otaku representation as fictional hero within the Western culture.
In the early 2000s the nerd representations evolve, gain power, lose the parody traits, even acquire a female figure: in Smallville (2001-2011: Warner Bros, merged into The CW from the 6th season), Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack), the nerd friend in love with Clark as a teenager, absolutely brilliant with PCs, is a fictional character introduced for the TV series and not present in the original DC Comics; in the most watched TV series in the world NCIS (CBS, 2003 – ongoing) Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) is a dark, gothic, ironic and solitary geek. Moreover in New Girl (sitcom Fox, 2011 – ongoing) the protagonist Jess Day (Zooey Deschanel) is an eccentric absent-minded young woman … nerd in a broad sense; in Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, 2013 –) Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) & Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are two-geniuses-in-one, with one (he) a tender and sensitive nerd/geek and one (she) a confident and independent scientist (how far from being a cheerleader!).
But the complete revolution takes place with the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007- ongoing), the real nerd paradise.
The growing media representation of nerds and geeks, which we have discussed so far, has had the very evident effect of making the geek’s ordinary, casual, careless clothing, unwilling to follow fashion, not just a recognisable style but also a trend to follow.
Although, in fact, geeks are not passionate about specific outfits or fashion, their interests for technology, manga, video games, sci-fi content clearly emerge from their dress choices and become distinctive and replicable in everyday life.
Somehow, we could say that geeks do not have a reputation for being stylish, but have gradually acquired it through media narratives that insist on their outfits, aiming to stereotypically emphasise the characters; in doing so, media have offered the performative “diffused audience” (Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998) dresses and accessories, favouring the subsequent appropriation of these symbolic materials for the construction of the self. All these processes now allow to be geeks without being freaks.
The evolution of the geek style, however, is extremely complex and not without contradictions. First, it could be useful to reflect on the balance between "normal" and "different". If we consider the nerd figure, which we have discussed so far, a difficult balance emerges between the non-communicative intentionality of the clothing, perfectly consistent with nerd's social marginalisation, and the communicative intention connected, however, with a (voluntary?) declaration of "diversity". The nerd’s garments are ordinary dresses: they are those garments which, according to Barthes (1972), are used to disguise nature and replace it with normalised forms within a reality that presents itself as a natural order.
Perhaps because of his lack of interest in fashion and social relations – in which fashion itself is experienced daily – the nerd does not seem interested in building an aesthetic and spectacular alternative to the dominant one. Compared to the subcultural styles described by Hebdige (1979), nerds clearly express a significant difference, since they are eccentric compared to the canons of socially coded taste (Bourdieu 1979), but they are not a product of a group identity, the existence of which is guaranteed by both a strong internal homology in terms of style and a willingness to disruptively communicate against the "normality" and "naturalness" of the convention.
The media discourse powerfully engages with this nuanced identity: the representation of the stereotypical geek/nerd in fictional narrative, as we have seen, has had - and still has - a key role in defining the style as distinctive. Somehow we might say, not without forcing, that a nerd’s clothing bricolage, normally so disinterested in fashion, acquires a sense within a coherent narrative, the media narrative, which emphasises it – to the limit of paroxysm – making it the distinctive feature of the story. This creates, then, a false group identity, which passes through style recognition, from the outside (the audience) more than from the inside (the nerd).
As a result, the creative bricolage of the contemporary geek works, therefore, on the media stereotype, distorting it but even taming it: the nerd/geek/fan who usually dresses casual – but not according to the film and television stereotype – finds that his casual style can become a powerful rather than an anonymous functional choice.
This affirmation process of an unfashionable style is not clearly impervious to the contemporary norm-core emergence, although these two styles have only some traits of potential overlap: they are both an expression of a style apparently based on the absence of taste, on the rejection of fashion dictates and, at the same time, on intolerance towards dress codes imposed by the social apparatus. With respect to this condition of fashion refusal, the nerd/geek outfit – based on improbable combinations of colours and old-fashioned and showy clothes (like a handmade cardigan), thick-framed glasses – finally finds some touch points with the simple, "as a tourist" flat style, composed by jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, a cool expression of young urban-creative Americans (De Biasi 2014). But the most important connection between these two fashion trends is embodied in the sense of rescue of those jinxed, brilliant and odd subjects, fans of sci-fi, comics and computers, traditional victims of bullying and taunting at school, whose attitudes and skills finally become elements of success (cfr. Mark Zuckerberg, in particular as he is represented by the film The Social Network, Columbia Pictures 2010).
Through media mediation and contamination with other contemporary trends – the role of the grunge style as a form of denial of fashion in the ‘90s should not be underestimated – then the geek style proposes a critique to diversity and social marginalisation, implied in the nerd's individual identity, and it becomes the expression of a mainstream fashion that is both inspiring principle and effect of consumerism.
Clothing items of geek-chic are, in fact, basic, mass, low-cost garments, expression of the fast fashion led to the success by brands such as Zara, H&M, Uniqlo etc. They are products, ultimately, which only have a sense in relation to the individual DIY clothing and the continuous experimentation of multiple selves on the daily stages of life.
As Colaiacomo remarks “Uniqlo, […] has never suggested ‘what is in fashion this season’ nor ‘how to wear’ a specific garment; it pursues the guiding idea according to which everybody has their own style of dressing and representing themselves, through the creation of casual clothing, strictly no logo and infinitely modular” (2012: 24).
In the geek’s case, perhaps one of the more consumable low-cost styles, on the one hand we have a style that is built on the basic fashion market, and on the other we are faced with a market that quickly replicates the mood of that style, through the production and consequent instigation to consume.
Geek clothes are extremely open to interpretation, because they tend to insignificance but within the mainstream they undergo continuous processes of signification, in some cases even far away from the geek culture which originates them. We can consider, for example, the case of eyeglasses: these are both an essential accessory for the nerd whose vision is compromised by books, and nowadays an increasingly recognisable element of contemporary geek-chic. As a fashion accessory, glasses lose their functionality and, from being a prosthesis worn by nerds and not without some discomfort, they definitely become a conscious hint to a style, to a symbolic "plus" (even if not used effectively to correct a visual defect). Eyeglasses frames which for aesthetics purposes tend towards transparency from the 90s (i.e. the Silhouette brand), suddenly become heavy again, however losing the essence of a punitive visual defect and providing an allure of intelligence and creativity.
A basic geek style uses simple garments which, as we saw, are lacking in visual references and any identifiable core style, as if they were "waiting for what, descending upon them, would have completed them by activating their identity” (Colaiacomo 2012); yet, what’s descending upon them as a more distinctive essence, is the fan identity, symbolised by the t-shirt dedicated to Marvel or DC comics superheroes. And here we can introduce the second element of discussion on the evolution of the geek style.
“Geek shirts signal in-group membership by making references to things only fellow geeks would be likely to recognize” (Tocci 2007: 12). The fandom nature and the consequent engagement in the appropriation and reworking of the popular culture are therefore the subcultural traits of the geek style: geek culture is based in fact on shared affinities amongst its members/fans and encourages clothing consumption as a strategy of identity signification and a way of providing recognition/homology inside the group and differentiation from the outside world (Hebdige 1979).
With reference to the geeks, subcultural identities manifest themselves through being a fan and in assuming a fannish style (Jenkins 1992), typical of fans. The nerd stigma of a social outcast joins the stigma of a fanatic, incorrect reader, devoted to mass culture consumption, irreducible within the intelligibility grid of a socially-validated taste.
In this sense the superhero imagery of the nerd/geek/fan is disdained and stigmatised, almost considered as sacrilegious by the old good taste, since it is also apparently aligned with mass culture which it feeds on: namely the fan devotion to popular culture is not perceived as rebellious compared to other breaking experiences against dominant culture.
The intellectual freedom to relate and reuse elements of popular culture is obviously typical of subcultures and postmodern styles, and the geek style as well: in the geek/fan style the popular culture is sometimes evoked as the effect of a nostalgia for TV and film products of the ‘70s, its quotations being reproduced in the form of drawings, symbols or sentences on clothing; in other cases these popular contents represent a chance to exercise self-irony as when the geek wears a superheroes shirt on a non-muscular and physical performing body. Geeks, then, express their fan identity and reproduce fandom practices of collecting and creative productivity (Fiske, 1992). It is not by coincidence that the geek clothing production, sold through online stores frequented by community fandom members, uses creativity and participation from the bottom, encouraging nerds/geeks to propose themes, slogans and images to be applied on t-shirts with the aim of strengthening the elements of cohesion and affinity between people with a similar taste.
In this sense, a t-shirt could be related to the cosplay practice, because the identity performance is built on sharing imagery in a social experience. However cosplaying practice is an expression of a ritualised, collective, symbolically powerful engagement, while wearing a superhero t-shirt is a normalised practice in everyday life; in some ways, the latter is more effective with respect to the mainstream affirmation of a geek style.
The promotion of this style affirmation is performed by the fans of media representations about geeks (films and TV series) who make their own the nerd/geek/fan identities by imitating that style. In the media storytelling about the geek's casual look, in fact, some garments assume more than others a relevant communicative and ostentatious value.
T-shirts evoking colourful costumes of superheroes have a relevant emphasis within the media texts; certainly those t-shirts gain more visibility than the nerd black t-shirt, which is also typical – if not more – of geeks’ clothing and it is more evidently a symbol of the nonconformists and countercultural traits of nerds/geeks (Tocci, 2007). However, the reference made to superhero fandom is, at the same time, capable of intercepting a wider universe, even non-overlapping the geek one, transforming an element of clothing into an increasing mainstream. The references found on shirts sold through nationwide chains “tend to be even more broadly accessible than those featured on the fashionable geek-store shirts noted above, and the pop culture references are more likely to be licensed than appropriated” (Tocci, 2007: 22).
That is to say that through the mediation of media storytelling (and the subsequent mediation operated by the fashion system), the elements of geek style may be more easily appropriated by the audience/fans interested in building a relationship with TV characters, even without investing symbolic system of geek culture inspiring TV representations. This allows a further bricolage practice: audiences reconstruct a fluid identity through diverse symbolic materials extrapolated from a media content, geek-chic included.
When buying and wearing T-shirts featuring superheroes and sci-fi culture elements, in fact, people express only some aspects of their identities and interests, besides benefiting from the offbeat hipster image connected with specific elements of the geek style; in doing so, even the most stereotypical traits of social marginalisation are reversed. This process, however, does not result in a monolithic representation of geekiness and does not necessarily require investing into the appropriation of the subcultural capital originally connected to that specific dress.
But this is not enough. The fandom practices, together with the ‘mix & match’ process on fashion contents shown in media texts, bring about a female declination of geekiness, which challenges those certainties shared by geek culture scholars, namely its gender- oriented characterisation.
As we have seen, in fact, geeks are mostly white, heterosexual males, and as a consequence the geek style is, at least initially, inevitably a male style. According to Lori Kendall (1999) in the geek style women would be defined only in relation to men, often as fans of male geekiness, wearing t-shirts that enhance their position of subordination and adoration towards the male geek. This interpretation is further radicalised by the negative stigma on girl-fans, represented, within mainstream media, as obsessed by the sexual and erotic aspects of the cult object, as low-skill individuals relegated to a constantly unfavourable hierarchical position in comparison with the better educated and more intelligent boy-fan (Busse, 2013).
But there are also different analyses and points of view. According to Mary Bucholtz (1996) nerd groups distinguish themselves from others for their explicit refusal of being cool, thus freeing themselves from that required‘must’ if you are always concerned about coolness. Resisting hegemonic social expectations, nerds also challenge the dominant ideologies of gender and sexuality: while the social pressure of having a girl and being sexually active is generally very high for cool white heterosexual students, it is not so relevant for nerds to the point that many gay and lesbian teenagers often approach nerd practices and identities, feeling more protected in this way.
The loosening heterosexual clarification as anti-cool attitude also causes transgressions in the conventional clothing exhibition of masculinity and femininity. For instance, nerds do not wear baggy pants, or the typical baseball caps and all the sports gear, while girl-nerds avoid tight fitting clothes, childhood animal-shaped pins and pastel colours, and especially “do not exhibit the combination of infantilization and sexualization evoked by the clothing of the cool white girls. In fact, nerd girls often seem consciously to subvert conventions of feminine adornment of the body through their own style choices. (…) And whereas dark colours and pastels are the two dominant styles among cool girls, nerd girls often delight in bright, even mismatched colours”. Substantially nerd girls deviate from the conventional femininity and its related obligations, and can exhibit their intellectual abilities without apology (Bucholtz 1996: 121-123).
However, in stereotypical geek representations provided by cinema we find a lack of analysis like in Bucholtz's, especially regarding women's issues. Indeed, mainstream culture is so far from any feminist or emancipationist look that it is incapable of representing femininity except in ancillary positions, toward jocks as much as toward nerds. Women-geeks, then, are not considered by the geek style, because the latter is gendered, when represented by cinema and television, even if in practice, in its reference to casual, basic items, sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers, the geek style is however bisexual, unisex or gender-less.
This male perspective is confirmed by the cheerleader cliché: after following and loving the jock, she ends up selecting the nerd to the point that the young light-headed blonde swaps her identity from being a mainstream woman of a corresponding jock (and his cheerleader) to being a mainstream woman of a geek (and his cheerleader). From the outfit point of view, she will aspire to access smaller sizes of male garments which are definitely unisex, if not completely male.
However, the evolution of the nerd television imagery (supported by the legitimisation of the otaku, hackers etc.) culminates in products such as The Big Bang Theory which are able to propose an actually female version of geekiness, which is not based on the feminisation of a geek style (namely the adaptation of men's clothing to women's bodies) but offers, instead, a feminine style of the geek, with its own identity and recognisable aesthetics, such as the one proposed by the character of Amy Farrah Fowler, immediately appropriated by the audience.
“The dress is never primarily functional”, maintained Elizabeth Wilson in 1985 against the critics of consumerism, who overlooked that even what is most detestable in a culture may be used to transcend it (“women and men may use the ‘unworthiest’ items of capitalist culture to criticise and transcend that culture”: 244). No matter how socially conditioned we may be, we are still always looking for the openings in a culture which allow us moments of freedom. And since fashion is a game somehow, we can play it “for pleasure”. But fashion is also much more than a game: since as one of the forms of aesthetic creativity fashion opens to an exploration of possible alternative identities. “For after all, fashion is more than a game; it is an art form and a symbolic social system” (ivi: 245)
There: exploring the many possible alternatives for a certain look, which could make performative the passage from the interior of the characters to the exterior of their screen appearance, must have been a primary concern for Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, creators of the world’s most famous sitcom, The Big Bang Theory (TBBT).
Produced by Chuck Lorre’s production company in collaboration with Warner Bros. TV and broadcast by CBS from the year 2007, presently in its ninth season and confirmed for a tenth one, the series has collected dozens of awards and has been met with an amazing success by the general public. To the point that even a reluctant sitcom watcher, being a product over-calibrated on the American public, has seen at least a few episodes of the series, intrigued by its universal appeal, irrespective of age, culture or social belonging.
What’s unusual in all this? That the look in question is the one of the nerds/geeks, precisely the one that entire generations of Americans have laughed at, though treating them like freak-derivations or little more; that the world suddenly shown as exclusive, palatable, but somehow unapproachable, and therefore cool to the maximum, is in fact the world of four young scientists of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, exclusive in its turn, secluded to the point that both students and professors board there throughout the whole year.
In order to function, the story must obviously be credible and unsettling: these scientists, who from a very young age have accumulated academic titles, and now work or collaborate with NASA, and are engaged in the most avant-garde laboratory research imaginable, how will they perform now when confronted by metropolitan reality, or courting girls, networking, dealing with their superiors, their parents, or ultimately with any common mortals?
The initial idea sees Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), an experimental physicist, and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), a theoretical physicist, share an apartment on the same floor as an alien, a country girl trying to get into acting in California, and in the meantime earns her living as a waitress, Penny (Kaley Cuoco). In fact in this world of real aliens, certainly in relation to the public once mainly made out of jocks, sports geeks and men of the world, the alien is instead the “normal” girl, who knows how to face life and is an expert of pop culture, though totally ignorant of science and marginally interested in knowing about it. The dialectical relationship is totally turned upside down, particularly since the two roommates usually interact with an aerospace engineer, Howard Wolfowitz (Simon Helberg) and the astrophysicist Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar). Four against one, who doesn’t even have a surname, but is named after a coin.
On this sensational anthropological revolution an irresistible dance of developing situations, gags, and characters is built as the story unfolds. Viewers are spellbound by the progressive complexity of the interactions among the new characters and all the myths the imagery evokes: Star Trek actors playing themselves, and even scientists in the flesh like Stephen Hawking appearing on the small screen. The real academic qualities of the characters are then made credible by David Saltzberg’s screenplay, who is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA as well as author of the scientific dialogues and the equations that Sheldon writes on his boards.