Fresh-faced 27-year-old Mark Zuckerberg wore a hoodie rather than a shirt and tie to meet with potential investors for Facebook's IPO this week, to the consternation of well-dressed financial analysts everywhere.
That hoodie is not size 'nerd'
With his decidedly casual wardrobe, Zuck has entered the pantheon of great and nerdy technological entrepreneurs, famous in part for the "uniforms" they wore.
Steve Jobs' closets full of black turtlenecks, jeans and sneakers were endearing and disarming. While convenient, it disguised the ambitious genius wearing them. Bill Gates' unkempt hair and safety-style specs helped cement his image as a nerd-terrible just as much as his ubiquitous operating system did. Steve Wozniak's out-of-date-and-frumpy wardrobe from the 1980s and 1990s gave him the air of the lovable wunderkind, jovial and enthusiastic about computers, not necessarily fashion.
And Zuckerberg wears a hooded sweatshirt, riling up the suited financial analysts who would like to control his money. They even called him immature.
In an editorial on CNN.com, Benjamin Nugent contended that nerds like Zuckerberg have no time to deliberate on their wardrobe because their minds are consumed with their work. Whether it's computer programming or art, Nugent said nerds are so singularly focused that they are unconscious of the visual impression they make. That social machinations like being presentable don't enter their head space -- they make spastic movements, have childlike laughs, even dress like homeless people, he said.
Nugent, the author of "American Nerd: The story of my people," said: "He's first and foremost an inventor, a tinkerer in a workshop, a monk in hooded robes. Sales, the bottom line, these are not the things that define me, the hoodie says." It's a savvy hoodie.
I respect Nugent immensely and can vouch for his masterful descriptions of contemporary nerds. I've sought his expertise more than once for Geek Out!, but he misses the mark on this point.
Especially within the professional and social circles of technically minded nerds, clothing matters. Would you trust an engineer who wasn't wearing a sturdy pair of rubber-soled shoes? What NASA mission control employee would NOT wear a pressed shirt to work? Isn't a polo shirt essential for men and women in research, company logo or not?
Math and science nerds grow up to get good-paying jobs where they constantly have to deal with stuffy muggles like business managers and venture capitalists. There are microcommunities of scientists, engineers and programmers which, based on their field of expertise, develop nuanced communication through the clothing they wear. Perhaps these intelligent people still laugh like Louis Scholnik from "Revenge of the Nerds" or speak inappropriately loud and fast when they're excited, but they'd never dream of wearing a pair of fashionably tight pants to work -- because the thought is nearly offensive.
And in the past five years -- because of the "nerd chic" oeuvre proliferated by the hipster community -- if there's anything that jeopardizes one's nerd cred, it's dressing "cool." Dressing professionally in general is not a threat to most nerds' identity, although most nerds will say it is possible to dress too professionally.
Looking professionally slick is not always as valued within nerd circles as being technically capable. For example, if an engineer showed up to a meeting dressed like Tim Gunn (who is a big fan of "Star Trek," by the way,) other engineers in the room might assume he couldn't bring anything consequential to the conversation and was probably just a manager. It is understood by many engineers that capable people don't need to "dress for success." That said, they generally don't look like schlubs, either, even if they're out in the field wearing reflector vests and sneakers.
If nerds were monolithic in the disregard of everything but their hearts' desire, like Nugent said, it would not be so consequential for a nerd to parade around in designer clothes.
But even if nerd fashion is not mainstream (and it is often deliberately, dramatically not mainstream,) it's my observation and experience that clothing is socially consequential for nerds. It's consequential in the way tartans denote Scottish clans -- a nerd's clothing tells people what kind of nerd they are. Often nerds wear their identities on their sleeves, through T-shirts emblazoned with images of Storm Troopers or chemical diagrams. The nerdy T-shirt is as good as a name tag if you know what you're looking at.
Zuckerberg's hoodie makes him an entrepreneur, an Internet artiste. There is no question he wears it intentionally -- that's where Nugent and I agree. I just don't think the fact that Zuckerberg chooses a hoodie instead of a blazer means he has no time for clothes shopping.