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The Clothes Make The Nerd

I recently had engagement photos taken.

Sure, I proposed to my fiancee Christmas morning, but with the wedding not happening until October 2012, it’s a long amount of time to keep people on the wedding hook.

We figured that getting photos done about a year away made sense. Kick off the yearlong countdown with something cool.

This week we saw the shots, taken by our friend Jillian. Simple, classy, beautiful. Quaint, New England factory-town locations, suffused with sunshine and autumn colors. The fiancee, of course, gorgeous.

And me?

I look fine, but I ask myself, “How nerdy do I look?”

It’s something I think of from time to time when it comes to my clothes. If what you wear is expected to be an outward manifestation of who you are inside, then I guess I’ve succeeded. My clothes, on the whole, are a bit nerdy.

Preppy clothes tend to look best on me now. Chinos? Yup. Vests and pastels? Most definitely. Rugby shirts, boat shoes, corduroy sportjackets and bow ties? No doubt. Plaids, argyles and checks? Bold and boss. A scarf at all times? Yes, please. If I can look like I jumped out of a Ralph Lauren ad, then I’m looking great.

And like many things in my life, fashion intersects with my race more than I’d think. There was always the particularly emphasis on style among black folks. Call it history, call if culture, call it whatever, but there’s this idea of “look like somebody to be somebody,” or “look like somebody if they won’t let you be somebody.”

As someone from a so-called minority group, where so much of how you’re read by the majority is wrapped up with images, it carries special importance. This likely is playing in the background of my mind when I choose not to wear sweats outside the house unless I’m heading to or from the gym. I don’t want to look the wrong way to the wrong person.

Such is my people’s history, such is the cultural memory passed down to me. That putting a black man in a suit made him appear “less threatening” to others (i.e. white folks). I have those same thoughts myself sometimes, a la the W.E.B. DuBois “double-consciousness.”

Still, it puzzles me when I put on my preppy clothes. Sometimes I feel as if I’m wearing a head-to-toe Carlton Banks costume. (Though I did go to prep school.) Coming of age in a time when black cool meant street and hip-hop, I never fit into that. Hell, I barely buy hip-hop records. Sure, the “Alex Vanderpool” look by Boyz II Men and Bentley Farnsworth looked more like me, but they were far more hip-hop than I ever would be.

So pretty much every “urban streetwear” label from the early ’90s on – Cross Colors, Karl Kani, FUBU, Rocawear, Coogi and so on – never really worked for me. When I put that stuff on, more often than not I feel like a fraud. Just not me, even though it’s made ostensibly for people who look like me.

Maybe I should have come up in the Motown era. I prefer to dress like Smokey Robinson. Or maybe my new black-nerd fashion role model is Raphael Saadiq, who rules the retro-funk domain these days.

I guess it’s a good thing people grow up, then. My nice clothes have been cool for 10 years now.

All that said, the bulk of my nerd wardrobe comes from T-shirts. I have more than enough T-shirts with cartoon and comic book characters on them. Half of them are Batman shirts.

Having spent so much of my life in comic book stores, it’s easy to collect them. At one point I used to bookmark the online store for Graffiti Designs and dream. One day, I’ll get a new gray-and-black Bat-symbol shirt, or that Gotham City Police Department shirt that looks like the ones my dad’s cop buddies wear. One day, I thought, when I’d make my own money, I’d own them all.

I’m 30 now, and the dream hasn’t happened. Even now I go to the comic book store, look at all the T-shirts – they’re still cool! – and I turn away. The really rad Star Wars shirt I had, with Princess Leia strangling Jabba the Hutt on one side, and Salacious Crumb on the other? It’s gone, long gone.

I’ve bought two comic book shirts in the past couple of years, a Green Lantern baseball-style shirt in green and black, and a Superboy-style one that’s a black shirt with a red S-shield.

I typically won’t do a comic book shirt and shorts, either. Even in the summer. Just too dorky for me. So these days you’ll find me in more polos and golf shirts, but the trick is to avoid the dadwear. So tough.

I definitely avoided the dadwear when it was time for the photos. In the engagement shoot, I paired a purple V-neck sweater over a white button-down with tan chinos with two-tone shoes. Mixed it up later with a blue corduroy blazer and a cravat made from vintage kimono fabric.

In the first shoot last year, it was a gray two-piece suit, an off-pattern gray vest, white collar shirt, and a vintage burgundy tie with a blue and gold design inlaid. One friend said I looked like a fly Pee Wee Herman.

Nerds can be fly, too. I’m good with that.

At least it’s better than hipster.

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