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How To Dress A Middle-Aged Nerd

From: andrew cooke <andrew@...>

Date: Wed, 8 Aug 2012 09:49:59 -0400

There was a post to HN - http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4353302 - about
"dressing nerds", which I wanted to try respond to in more detail.

This post is *not* about how *you* should dress.  I don't think I can do that,
because everyone is different.  But what I can do is show the process that *I*
went through when I started to "worry about fashion".

That may seem terribly self-centred, but I hope that there is also something
here that is more general.  My approach was very much an analytical one - no
different in many ways to how I would design software.  And I think that may
be something other people in a similar position can repeat (if they want to!)

Of course, there are also many factors that are specific to my particular
circumstances.  In particular, this entire process was triggered by my moving
to Chile.  Once here it slowly dawned on me that many people thought I dressed
badly (worse, that I dressed like a child).  At the same time I became
increasingly aware that - simply by moving to a new country - I had been
"promoted" to a higher social class (both because I am "white" and because I
earn an "American" wage here in Chile).

So I felt out of place, and I felt stupid, and I felt misunderstood.

It slowly dawned on me that one way I could control this was by making a more
conscious decision about how I dress.

Typically I wore jeans and a T-shirt, like most people in my social circle.
And this wasn't just through laziness - there was a sense that avoiding
"fancy" clothes was a statement about consumerism (amongst other things).  I
did not want to be someone who thought about fashion, because that was a
shallow, dumb, pointless thing to think about.

At the same time, I admired people who stood on their own - who made an
individual statement.  And I guess I somehow thought, or assumed, that you did
that by sometimes choosing unusual clothes.  For example: I owned some purple
Doctor Marten boots (this was some time ago - I have no idea if that make
still exist; I haven't seen them here in Chile).

While I am still sympathetic to that general political (using that word is
perhaps an overstatement - this was simply "my way"; it wasn't a carefully
planned political strategy...) view, one of the first things I learnt from
living in Chile was that FASHION IS RELATIVE.

What I thought I was showing by wearing certain clothes is not what the people
around me understood.  They looked at me and they saw a rich foreigner with no

Not "no taste" as in choosing the wrong designer shoes.  More like, no taste
as in listening to crappy music.  Loudly, in public.  Not a subtle thing - I
came across as a clueless loser.

At this point I had two options: fuck'em or beat them at their own game.

Angry at being labelled as clueless loser, I took the former route.  Screw
them.  I am me.  But that gets tiring; you never really win.  So I was slowly
forced to reconsider my position.

That's the context.  If I continue to explain things in narrative form then I
will be typing forever.  Instead I want to make some general notes on how I
adapted without - I hope - "selling out".

First, you need to understand the context.  You need to understand what other
people are seeing.  What do different styles mean to them.

That's hard.  You can't go round interviewing people.  And even if you could I
don't think it would be helpful, because this is largely unconscious.

So instead, I started to look at other people and *think* about how they
dress, and how that relates to the kind of people that they are.

Chile is very like the UK in that it is quite class-conscious.  There are rich
people and poor people, and that is reflected in how people act, dress, talk,
etc.  So one thing I did was look at how rich people dressed.  I am using
"rich people" in a prejudicial way here - I mean the noisy, brash, arrogant
class that I felt I had been "promoted into".

And after a while you can see certain patterns.  They wear clothes with
monograms on.  They wear clothes that look new.  They never look really
comfortable.  They look, in various ways, all the same.

So I knew to avoid that.

But at the same time I needed to look like *something*.  What I currently had
simply didn't work.

So I also need to look for positive role models.  Looking back - I didn't
realise this at the time - a designer that I worked with, who was
Canadian-Chilean, and looked like " a gringo", and so had to deal with similar
issues (but was much more adept and integrated than I will ever be) was a huge
help.  He looked great.  He also looked different.  He didn't look rich, but
he looked clued up.

I started to study people as a I walked down the street.  When I saw someone
that "looked good" I tried to work out why.

I have other things to do, so I need to finish here.  But I hope that it's
clear that fashion isn't about labels, or particular styles, except that those
are aspects of a larger whole.

Fashion (in the broad, useful sense) is about choices and communication; about
understanding other people's heads and eyes, and then playing with that.  In a
very real sense it's "culture jamming".  William Gibson gets this (although he
misses a lot of the politics) - if the above makes no sense try reading his
latest work.


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