'Revenge of the Nerds' at 30: Searching for the Roots of the Nerd Look

·Contributor
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Revenge of the Nerds turns 30 on Sunday. Starring Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine, the comedy was the sleeper hit of the Ghostbusters summer, spawning two sequels and, most important, establishing forever what it is a nerd should look like.

Plaid shirt. High-waisted pants. Black-rimmed glasses.

The look is so engraved in our consciousness, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t always there. But what were the roots of America’s eternal class loser?

Revenge of the Nerds' style followed in the short-sleeved tradition of Grease geek Eugene Felnic (played in the 1978 film by Eddie Deezen, Hollywood’s go-to geek of the era), which itself followed in the bow-tied tradition of Jerry Lewis’s Julius Kelp, aka The Nutty Professor. Between Eugene and Julius, there were other movie nerds, but especially, recalls Clothes on Film’s Christopher Laverty, Charles Martin Smith’s Terry “The Toad” Fields from American Graffiti. (“It’s not just the look, either, but his whole physicality,” Laverty says.)

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But if there was a patient zero of the nerd look, then Eddie Marks, who was costume supervisor on Revenge of the Nerds, argues that it wasn’t a person or a character, but a decade: the 1950s.

"[Lewis Skolnick’s] father [played in Nerds by James Cromwell] was kind of caught in the ’50s, so Carradine’s character kind of emulated his father,” Marks says. “We did some research. We took schoolbooks from the ’50s, like high school annuals, and followed that stuff.”

From this came the movie’s signature  tapered pants and short-sleeved, checked shirts featuring what Marks calls the “see-through look — so that you could see the undershirts.”

Accessories, such as the pocket protector proudly modeled by Carradine’s Skolnick, were baked into the screenplay, Marks recalls. (And, yes, plastic pocket protectors, born in the late 1940s, boomed in the 1950s.)

Asked why the 1950s, as opposed to the 1850s or any other decade, provided the nerd template, Julian Chambliss, an associate professor of history at Rollins College, has a theory: The United States’ urge to catch up to the Sputnik satellite-launching Soviet Union made rock stars of rocket scientists.

"The slide rule, the glasses, and the demeanor [were] brought into public consciousness by the scientists linked to the space race," Chambliss says. "In particular, newsreel footage of the newly created NASA and the successes of the Gemini program made Americans familiar with the ‘look.’"

The Nutty Professor followed in the early 1960s. Grease and American Graffiti arrived in the 1970s but were set in the ’50s, as was TV’s Happy Days, which has been credited with spreading the word “nerd.” (As an aside, Potsie Weber, though the target of Fonzie’s nerd-shaming on Happy Days, did not dress or act the part and thus cannot truly be considered a forefather of the nerd.)

Revenge of the Nerds stood out in that it took the 1950s prototype and transposed it to the present day. As it happens, that moment of the film’s debut 30 years ago was the dawn of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the personal computer revolution.

"The title of the film spoke to a new generation of science-enabled men achieving success and power despite social marginalization," Chambliss says.

After Nerds, Marks went on to work as a costumer on The Breakfast Club, featuring Anthony Michael Hall’s brainy high-schooler. On that movie, writer and director John Hughes had a very specific idea of how Hall’s Brian Johnson should dress, Marks says, and while the result wasn’t hip, the character’s baggy sweater also wasn’t pocket-protector-friendly.

The funny thing about the nerd look is that once it was spotlighted in Revenge of the Nerds it was quickly integrated into everyday fashion.

"I’ve got computer geeks that work for me here," says Marks, who now runs a costume house. "They don’t appear to be that nerdy anymore."

Watch the original trailer for Revenge of the Nerds below: