GEEK CHIC Nerd alert: Suave takes a back seat to those who fancy pocket protectors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"I consider myself and still do consider myself the hippest man on the planet . . . But I think if you have to say that you probably aren't, so I've never really said that."

--Barry Manilow on "Entertainment Tonight" Snicker or even laugh hysterically if you will, but afterward, you'd better sit down, for the following news is not pretty: Geek chic is hot. It's hip to be dorky, cool to be square.

Forget Billy Baldwin and Tom Cruise. Along with Barry Manilow, Garth Algar, Orville Redenbacher and Crispin Glover are pop culture's latest stud muffins. And that has to mean Mr. Rogers is now considered a complete babe.

You don't believe it? Then witness the list of celebrities, clothing and 'dos so blissfully, doggedly uncool you never thought in a million years they'd make it onto the "hot" list.

Hollywood's latest love trend is dating dorky. Until recently, Michelle Pfeiffer was head over heels with nonhunk Fisher Stevens, an actor who specializes in playing nerds. Drop-dead gorgeous Brad Pitt dated late-bloomer Juliette Lewis.

But perhaps the biggest trailblazer of all was Julia Roberts, who pushed, or rather ripped, through the geek envelope by marrying peculiar-looking Lyle Lovett -- he of the voice like "buttah" and "Eraserhead" pompadour that's been affectionately compared to a nest of nuclear-radiated alfalfa sprouts.

Mr. Lovett isn't the only one into dorky 'dos. They were all the rage at the fall couture shows in Paris, according to Jimmy Paul, a stylist with Oribe at Elizabeth Arden Salon in New York. Pixies and Dutch Boy cuts were sported by ubermodels Amber Valetta and Linda Evangelista respectively. "To pull off these styles you must be very tongue-in-cheek," says Mr. Paul, who personally favors shags.

And do listen up: These styles are no longer on the fringe of high fashion. Chris Cayton of the Los Gatos, Calif.-based IMRU? hair salon has been besieged with requests for Cindy Brady-inspired pigtails and braids -- accessorized with pink plastic little-girl barrettes -- favored by many Vogue models and even Madonna. Perhaps scariest of all requests, however, are the ones for Frankenstein bangs severely butchered to one inch and exposing ample forehead. Don't try this at home, cautions Mr. Cayton, who recently chopped an (ex)friend's bangs to an emphatic slice, after which she sat in front of the mirror "and freaked out for a while. She did look a bit like Jerry Lewis, I must say. Of course, I didn't tell her that night. She liked them the next day, by the way."

Mr. Cayton always confirms and reconfirms that these clients -- predominantly ultratrendy young women "fashion victims" -- know what they're getting into.

'Are you sure?'

"Any time anyone requests something I wouldn't have recommended, I always ask them two or three times, 'Are you sure?' just to make sure I'm not misunderstanding them," says Mr. Cayton. "Because Naomi Campbell can have them and look cute, but she can get away with 'fros or anything. Normal people can't get away with that."

For closet geeks or those only partially committed to this trend, Mr. Cayton recommends paste-on Frankenstein bangs or even clip-on cinnamon rolls, worn spiraled around the ears Princess Leia-style, also quite fashionable these days after having turned up at the Thierry Mugler fall couture shows.

For men, Roman 'dos, known as the salad-bowl or Caesar cut, are the gooberish cut of choice. Reinvented earlier this year by Kevin Costner in "The Bodyguard," the cut has been featured on a group of brooding Italian-looking hunks in several recent Guess? ads. Simon LeBon of Duran Duran, looking very Richard Burton in "Cleopatra," can be seen on MTV displaying this style, a close-cropped cut, worn flat and brushed forward with short bangs.

Perhaps it's a by-product of the grunge movement or '70s revival or both, but there is no shortage on dweeby duds lately either. At Behind the Post Office, a teeny San Francisco boutique specializing in vintage jazz, skateboarder style and yes, nerd chic, one can select an outfit that would assure a prime spot on Mr. Blackwell's Worst Dressed List.

It's "Revenge of the Nerds" all over again. Shelves are lined with argyle cardigans exactly like the nifty ones Mister Rogers wears while dishing with human visitors in the "Neighborhood of Make Believe." Taking fashion tips from Mister Rogers may seem scary, but these brightly colored sweaters, referred to as "wise guy cardies," are frequently worn by members of the ultrahip Digable Planets and other hip hop and rave enthusiasts.

Geekiest of all

Ribbed "Star Trek"-inspired knitwear with ringed zippers or, even worse, lace-up collars and corduroy pants by Zimbabwe that cross the line from grunge to geek in colors like cobalt blue can also be purchased here. But perhaps geekiest of all are the quilted vests by Anarchic Adjustment featuring a built-in backpack that re-invents the pocket protector concept. Perfect for hackers and techies alike, it provides ample space for protractors, pens, pencils, even a Power Book.

Golf-style knit polo shirts are also big sellers at Behind the Post Office. It's no wonder, says owner Stephen Pringle, because "Golf is such a geeky sport -- the stance, the clothes, basically everything about it."

There's no real explanation for geek chic, according to Mr. Pringle, "but it seems to have trickled down from high fashion," he says, pointing to a stiff denim jacket with chunky white stitching by Body and Sole that costs $88 and appeared in Vogue last month, yet looks suspiciously similar to Sears Toughskins.

And this fall, corduroy is expected to hit big. It was ingrained into mainstream consciousness when Tom Cruise sported a very dorky thick corduroy blazer with elbow patches in "The Firm" last summer.

Meanwhile in Europe, ultrahip Parisians and Londoners are wearing high water pants. They've been spotted on a few fashion forward individuals on this side of the Atlantic, too. Whereas "Hey, waiting for a flood?" was the kiss of death in junior high, it might be a compliment now, according to Heleen, a saleswoman and Cher look-alike at Willow Glen, Calif.-based Diva, who wears her ultrathick, corduroy bell bottoms "flooded out," all the better to see her chunky Doc Martens.

Sandals and socks

Still not convinced it's time to call the fashion police? There's an even more heinous fashion crime than floods being committed by chic geeks. Scads of GenXers invaded Lollapalooza last summer wearing Teva sandals paired with white athletic socks or even (cringe!) peds. The shoes, invented by a river rafting guide, have rubber outsoles, nylon and straps and basically look like thongs with an ankle strap. The look -- a hideous flashback of pasty-white tourists sifting the sands of Waikiki Beach with metal detectors and Jerusalem cruisers worn with black dress socks -- doesn't come cheap. Tevas sell for $49 to $70.

"I don't know why kids are wearing them with socks during summer," says a baffled Jean McPherson, Teva's marketing manager. "Maybe they have ugly toes."

How long will this fad last? Will Rick Moranis and Screech from "Saved by the Bell: The College Years" replace Luke and Jason as our newest sex symbols?

Or is it only a matter of time before the mainstream picks up on geek chic? Imagine the mailman sporting a salad bowl 'do or your dental hygienist wearing Princess Leia cinnamon rolls. When that happens, geek will lose its hip quotient, it'll no longer be chic, it'll be, well, just plain geeky.

Kim Ratcliff is a California-based free-lance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and LA Style magazine.

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