It’s OK for Nerds to Dress Well Redux: Shouldering the Burden

I’ve not written about fashion in a while, but please don’t think I’ve given it up. Your life couldn’t be going that well, could it? Of course not. My missionary work as an emissary of respectable clothing has not been abandoned, merely postponed. I still believe, quite strongly, that you don’t have to forego looking presentable when you step outside just because you are a person whose hobbies involve microchips and Internet connectivity. Looks are not the most important thing in the world, and they don’t change who you are — but they do help determine what people think about you, which I’m sorry to say has a lot to do with how you make it through life. It doesn’t really matter what you wear, but own the look, even if it’s a T-shirt and cargo jeans.

I can also say from experience that when you dress better, you feel better about yourself. I know people are endlessly amused by my habit of voluntarily wearing a jacket and sometimes even a tie to write about video games (or, god forbid, wear a red hat to a trade show), but it’s for myself, not others: When I dress in the American uniform of baggy jeans and a silkscreened T-shirt, all I see in the mirror is a short, lumpy, sad sack. But in a fitted button-down shirt and a nice pair of pants, I look like someone who takes some measure of pride in himself, and that appearance impresses itself upon me to become more than just an illusion. A blazer or vest is my armor against the world and — more importantly — against the part of my brain that hates me. So I guess I lied: Looks can change who you are, subtly. They don’t make you a better or more worthwhile person, but they can bolster your sense of self-worth… something especially important for people like us, who often live under a cloud of social rejection and harsh self-evaluation.

It’s been a while since I last wrote about this stuff, so let me reiterate the most important thing: Regardless of anything else you do, you absolutely need to prioritize fit. Whether you’re a towering stick of a man or a diminutive butterball, when your clothes fit correctly you instantly look better. For the most part, this means you should avoid wearing clothes that are too large. This can be surprisingly difficult to achieve; the American fashion industry has been driven to adapt to the nation’s growing collective waistline by upsizing its lines. When McDonald’s recalibrated its drink sizes so the XL Coke became merely L (despite maintaining a consistent volume), so too did Levi’s and The Gap begin adding millimeters and then inches to its own size metrics — no doubt for psychological reasons. If people feel like they’re slimmer than they are when they wear your clothes (look, a size M is so roomy! I guess the scale was lying about those 20 pounds it said I’ve gained!), they’re more likely to buy them. This is why at 5’7″ and 160 pounds — hardly the low end of the male genome — I can’t actually wear a size-small shirt from The Gap or Old Navy; it’s voluminous on me. But not all labels have given into upsize pressure, and European brands in particular still cling to classic sizing, and slim cuts have grown increasingly popular in recent years. So you can’t just wander into a store and expect to know the fit of clothing.

This means — yes — you have to use the fitting rooms. So sorry. Bring some disinfectant wipes, if you like.

As usual, I’m only talking about men’s fashion here, because opening the door to the difficulties of women’s fashion is like watching Schindler’s List while your entire family dies of cancer. I don’t know how women deal with it. I were one of them the whole fashion situation would make me so angry I’d be driven to personally assassinate every fashion designer on the planet and sew their skin into a stylish, durable, and not-excessively-revealing dress. But I was born male and only have a few minor clothing factors to concern myself with. I guess you lucked out, Michael Kors.

If you know nothing else about clothing, know this: Everything revolves around the shoulder. Men, if your clothes fit at the shoulder, you’ve basically won. It is the most important seam in your closet, and all else falls into place from there. The shoulder is always the starting point for buying a jacket, of course, because the shoulder construction of a jacket is far too complex to make resizing it a viable option; you’d spend about the same to have it reworked as you would simply buying a new coat altogether. You can alter your sleeves (even if they have working buttonholes), you can take up the bottom edge, you can even let out the waist if need be. But the shoulder is the jacket’s foundation.

However, this also holds true for shirts. If your shirt fits correctly at the shoulder, chances are good it will fit correctly everywhere. Of course, there are nuances; the “classic” cut is usually boxier and will likely be looser around the middle, while a “modern,” “slim,” or “city” cut nips in at the waist. Your sleeves probably won’t be the perfect length right off the rack, and most people will need to have a tailor relocate the cuffs northward by an inch or two, because the fashion industry assume we are all very literally knuckle-draggers. Nevertheless, these details can be adjusted easily. The shoulder cannot.

The seam of your shirt should coincide with the curve of your actual shoulder. You should experiment with different fits to determine where exactly that falls, because obviously everyone’s shoulder breaks at different points and has its own distinct curvature. But if your shirt’s shoulder seam is closer to your collarbone than to your arm, you’ve gone too tight and will look like you just experienced a sudden growth spurt and haven’t made your way to the department store for replacements yet. On the other hand, if your shoulder seam lies somewhere across your bicep, you’ve erred in the other direction. The Big Suit look was funny and weird when David Byrne did it 30 years ago, but these days it just makes us look like a bunch of slobs who ran out of clean laundry and started digging around for something to wear in the rag pile.

When you look at clothing models, you will notice their clothes fit and make them look awesome. Yes, the men they pick for those shoots are unreasonably tall, slim, handsome, and apparently chiseled from some sort of marble that perfectly resembles tanned flesh pulled taut over a framework of pure muscle; ignore that stuff. The only thing you should really care about is the fact that they all wear clothes that fit them beginning with the shoulder, and you should follow their lead. Your genetics may be conspiring against you, but you can flip the bird to your parents’ genetic contributions and look nice anyway.

130317-lumerbjackA rare exception to the “fashion designers sell clothes by putting them on beautiful people who wear them properly” is this dude I found at the National Geographic store’s website, which (like The Sharper Image) caters specifically to middle-aged dads. In this case, they’re reaching out to 30- and 40-somethings who mistook themselves for lumberjacks because of Pearl Jam and never stopped to think that maybe it made sense for dudes in dreary Seattle to wear flannel and they they didn’t need to follow suit down in Florida, or that the grunge look should have gone away when the grunge bands did. National Geographic dares to sell its wares on the strength of its frumpiness, and good on them for carving their own niche.

But seriously, this is the classic uniform for guys who will invariably try to act cool around their teenaged childrens’ friends and probably singlehandedly inspire more Facebook bullying than anything the kids could do on their own. Do you want to be that guy? Of course not. Dress responsibly. Your future childrens’ happiness depends on it.

7 thoughts on “It’s OK for Nerds to Dress Well Redux: Shouldering the Burden

  1. Once you’re aware of “the shoulders” buying clothes will never be the same again. I’ve had to forego so many clothes I wanted to buy, simply because the shoulders were off. I actually gave away most of my (brand) clothes several years ago, simply because I was aware how off they looked on me.

    Finding clothes that fit and look good is harder than tracking down any form of obsolete multimedia that’s for sure.

    • The funny thing is, I have the best luck finding both obscure games AND clothes that fit in the same place: Japan. Everyone there is as short as me!

  2. I took Kevin clothes shopping recently for fitted shirts and blazers. Not to buy, necessarily, but just to get a feel for different styles and the practice of trying clothes on. Kevin seemed to enjoy it. I left the store feeling completely envious of how simplified men’s clothing shopping seems. I should have flipped over a mannequin.

    Also, I think we may have mentioned this to you in passing at the last PAX, but Kevin makes a point to dress up (suit, tie) on the PAX Friday, as a counterpoint to the regular nerd uniform. He’s definitely noticed different reactions from people based on his presentation.

  3. In regards to men’s clothing skewing too large, I tend to have the opposite problem. It seems like most of the clothes I find are intended for the new vogue; tall, pale and lanky scene kids who want jeans that cling tightly to their ankles and legs. Being on the short, chunky side of things makes clothes shopping not just difficult, but kind of embarrassing.

  4. I’m a fit 6 foot and 210 pounds; I lift weights and do jiu jitsu. So my problem is that if something fits my shoulders, it may be too big for my waist.

    But I have also noticed that when I started dressing better, I felt more confident. At work, I wear a dress shirt (and nice merino wool sweater) with nice jeans and casual Oxford shoes. It’s not quite business casual because of the jeans, but I think it’s a good compromise for a programmer and researcher. It really does help to be able to look in the mirror and think, “Hey, I look pretty good.”

  5. I’m with Adrian – I find a lot of stuff that skews towards the stick kids these days.

    Also, though you’re correct in that sizes have skewed larger than they used to be, let’s not forget the actual fashion of wearing baggy clothes. I mean, these two things go hand in hand, but yeah.

    And it’s most definitely OK to be thankful you don’t have to bother with all that female fashion nonsense. We got it easy – some kind of pantaloons and some kind of shirt. And even then, so many choices to make within this limited set!

  6. Like Kupek, I’m 6’4″, 230, with broad shoulders. Clothes that fit my shoulders are definitely made for more robust gentleman than I. I typically have to buy for the shoulders, then take them in at the waist. Don’t even get me started on pants >:-/

    I must agree, it’s worth it for the boost in self-esteem. I had a buddy mock me this weekend because I switched out of track pants (we had been walking around Antietam battlefield) and into nicer clothes to go into a bar. “Dude, you think anybody cares?” “I do!”

    And the lesser-seen bonus is when you get home at the end of the day and you get to pull a Mr. Rogers, switching into slippers and comfy pants. If I was slumming in those all day, it just wouldn’t be the same treat.

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