How geek fashion wants to level up your fan wardrobe...and where it's going next

Many fans that went to San Diego Comic-Con returned home with a few extra items in their possession. For some, this includes apparel and accessories inspired by their favorite genres and fandoms. These might have been free, like the T-shirt handed out at the end of the Game of Thrones "Experience the Realm" interactive event, but a lot of fans probably bought them on the show floor, where there was no end to the selection of fashionable products found at various booths this year. 

At Comic-Con, it was clearer than ever that geek fashion has become an integral part of the culture and convention experience, not just in terms of what you can buy, but also in how it's being used by attendees to express themselves and connect with each other. While still very present at the convention, cosplay and the standard T-shirt are not the only options, or perhaps even the majority choice for fans to wear, especially for women. There's a desire for geek fashion beyond the tee, which could also be seen in how popular the second annual Her Universe Fashion Show was this year, with its spotlight on more couture options. People want to express their love for a genre or fandom through fashion, and there are more ways they can do that now than ever before.

Past to Present: Fashion at Comic-Con

Hot Topic's senior vice president of merchandising and marketing, Cindy Levitt, has been attending San Diego Comic-Con for years. She has been a judge at both Her Universe Fashion Shows, of which Hot Topic is one of the partners. Levitt told me that, when she went to Comic-Con previously, she would see the average attendee wearing just a T-shirt or cosplaying. 

"Now I feel like there's this whole group of people in between that it makes it so anybody can dress up for Comic-Con. The geek fashion is the main thing aside from all the other changes, the studios being so big and all that," she said.

During this convention, she spotted skater dresses, skirts and more easy pop culture wear. She also saw a big demand for plus sizes and people wearing the plus sizes available, including items from Hot Topic and Torrid.

"It's unbelievable how much there is and how they're not wearing a guy's T-shirt anymore. They're wearing fashion, and you can tell they want more, too," she said. "That was one of the biggest things I've seen here, the demand for plus size. They don't want a dumpy T-shirt. They want cute fashion. They are wearing it, and they're supporting it, and it fit. That was a great thing to see, too, and something we definitely paid attention to."

Levitt thinks there's been a dramatic shift even from what people were wearing last year. They were still wearing something cute, but now it's easy to throw on.

"I think it's just a way of representing what you like without, 'Oh my god, I don't have a costume.' I kept asking everybody, 'What is the difference?', and it was like just way less costumes and more easy wearing. We have a lot of it out there, but it's a lot of other companies, too," she said.

More companies are definitely offering these options to fans. There were an impressive number of booths that focused on apparel and accessories at the convention. Some booths, like dedicated geek fashion businesses Her Universe and WeLoveFine, even had two locations. Each had one right in the Lucasfilm area, where they displayed their Star Wars items, and another in a different area of the show floor, where they could display their items inspired by a range of other pop culture franchises. Other booths were just dedicated to accessories like bags or jewelry, and some companies also offered items. For example, the DC Comics booth offered an exclusive Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice logo T-shirt from Junk Food Clothing each day at the convention.

This was only WeLoveFine designer Catherine Elhoffer's second year at the convention, but she also noticed a change from last year -- people wearing more subtle stuff, such as skater dresses, mashups and bounding looks, such as a punk Zelda and Link, who came up to WeLoveFine's Star Wars booth during our interview. 

"What I'm taking away from this is the fashion," Elhoffer said of the outfits. "The denim vest ... we don't have a Nintendo [license], but we are actually working on some denim stuff too, but you just throw a different property onto it, and now we have a really cool piece that somebody else can utilize for people who can't do DIY because they just don't know how, or they don't have access to the resources."

When it comes to the properties, it's no surprise superheroes were a big inspiration for many attendees' fashions. Elhoffer said she was seeing more Marvel this year, as well as more animated properties like Steven Universe and smaller, younger properties that may only be in their first or second seasons but are taking off. While Elhoffer believes the field has grown so much in the past few years that you can see inspiration from everything, she hasn't seen book properties making the leap to fashion too much. 

"I haven't seen a whole lot of Pride and Prejudice walking around here, but with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coming out, I'm sure that will change," she said.

That doesn't mean it's impossible to find something to wear that represents your favorite book genre, though. Badali Jewelry, a company made up of about nine people, was attending Comic-Con for its 10th year. A number of their jewelry lines are inspired by book properties like J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and Patrick Rothfuss' The Kingkiller Chronicles. From founder and president Paul Badali's perspective as someone involved with jewelry, he said he's seen people's interests shift over the years. At this year's show he was noticing a lot of Star Wars and Batman. 

"There was one year where everything people wanted was Battlestar Galactica. There were a couple years where everything needed to be zombie," Badali told me.

The Fashionable Fans

Beyond the convention floor and what was being sold at booths, fashion found its way to other areas of Comic-Con as the subject of panels and a way for fans to express themselves at specific events. Off-site events that were specific to the idea of fashion included the Geeks Go Glam party and the Fashionably Nerdy Cocktail Hour. Other events, like fan party SherlockeDCC just gathered fans who shared a passion for a specific area, but some of those fans decided to express themselves through fashion, like Ashley Macejka of Geek Thread. She made Sherlock-inspired dresses for herself and her friends for the party, telling me she especially enjoys doing it for other people. She's also happily noticed it catching on, thanks to companies like Her Universe, that not every woman is a size small and there need to be options for real-size people. 

Macejka believes an important part of change is that the increased subtle options mean what fans are now wearing to the con can also be brought into their outside lives. That's one of the things Tosca, from Pasadena, Calif., enjoys as well. Wearing a Star Trek cardigan and DC Comics dress, she told me she cosplays but likes to have a bit of variation. 

"So, this is something I can wear to work that kind of subtly shows that I'm a nerd, but I can still get away with wearing it to work and people don't kind of say, 'Why are you dressed like Doctor Who? This is an office environment.' So I like to be a little bit more subtle, but still show that I love the things that I love and have it in a really cute, fashionable way that, if you don't know that its something from Star Trek, you just think it's a cute sweater," she said.

Dressing subtly like this at Comic-Con makes her feel like she's flying under the radar a bit. 

"I get a couple little like compliments but it's kind of cool. If you cosplay one day you might get stopped a lot and this way you're showing your badge of pride, but kind of just being able to sail through," Tosca said.

Jeremy, who has been attending Comic-Con for years, has a similar experience dressing for conventions and connecting to people. When asked why he likes to wear something that expresses his fandom, he said he doesn't like most logo shirts but buys those displaying something he has a connection to.

"Shadow of the Colossus is my favorite videogame, so I want to show that I love that to other people. I actually will go around and at the con I would tell people, 'I love your shirt. I love your outfit," he said. "... I love when somebody has something that I like. I saw a girl walking around with a shirt earlier. It was a Doctor Who Sleeping Beauty shirt, so I was like, 'I f***ing love your shirt,' and, just for that moment, it was like kind of connecting."

Retailers Influenced By Comic-Con Fashions 

Why, exactly, are companies offering more options now? To Elhoffer, it's because creating more specialized items might take more work but gets customers excited, since creating these complex items would take fans a ton of time to do on their own. 

"It's giving more to the customers who are asking for it. People have been requesting different things, and we, of course, grab that and draw it up and get it approved and go for it, but people want more," said Elhoffer. "We're geeks, we always want more. Comic books weren't enough, we wanted movies, we want TV shows, we want miniseries ... so we always want more, like we want more books, we want more of everything, and we want better."

Fans' requests and how they dress does have an impact on companies, who are taking notice at Comic-Con.

"What I've noticed is the fans really like to be able to connect on a physical level with whatever they're really interested in, and a piece of jewelry from the movie or from the book gives them that personal connection with the universe and with maybe a character they really love or they really hate," Badali said. "It seems like villains are as popular as heroes with our crowd. And so those are the kind of things we try to keep in mind when we design a piece of jewelry." 

Levitt also thinks more retailers are getting in on geek fashion because they've seen it and want a piece of it.

"I mean, bottom line, we all want to make money, and so I think they're seeing what's coming down the aisles and that they're just going, 'Wow, OK, it's not just a T-shirt any more now,' and maybe there's a difference between this extreme $200 steampunk version of something or really built-up outfits that are really expensive, and there's an opportunity for a $35 dress or a $40 dress or a cute little fit and flare tank," Levitt said. "I think everyone's just realized by witnessing. You know, it's always the customers and the consumer that tells us what to do or not telling them what to do."

Hot Topic had about 20 people at Comic-Con this year to see what everyone was wearing, what they were inspired by and what may be emerging among fans. The purchasing habits of fans also make a difference. Hot Topic creates licensed apparel with images from properties on items, but they've also been releasing inspired by collections such as Penny Dreadful and Orphan Black. Those fashion collections have received such a good response that Hot Topic plans to do more as a result.

"We don't want to overkill it, but it seems like there's a pent-up demand for it, and it gives people a way to wear what they believe in and are passionate about," Levitt said.

The Future of Comic-Con Fashion

This means much more is on the way from these companies, and the fashion landscape between this Comic-Con and next year's will look quite different. Levitt said future "inspired by" collections coming this year would include a Nightmare Before Christmas line with structured dresses with corseting; a Doctor Who line including such products as a TARDIS dress and sweater with stripes from the Fourth Doctor; an Alice in Wonderland collection in the spring; and something for those Pride and Prejudice and Zombie fans that Hot Topic is testing for Valentine's Day. If you look carefully, Levitt said, you'll be able to see little dark sides to everything. It's part of Hot Topic taking geek fashion to the next level as more retailers get in on items like shirts and skater dresses.

"We're doing everything. We're doing the basic easy and we're going to do the more constructed, built up, too. But we're doing it because the fashion's there, the fan base is there, the hunger for it is there, and I just love it because it's so fun to do something other than a T-shirt," she said.

Elhoffer thinks we will see a shift in what people are wearing at the next Comic-Con because of some of her new designs coming out as well. She thinks fashion is getting more advanced and intense, moving to more complex items like business apparel and structured jackets. 

From what she's observed at the convention, Levitt also thinks plus sizes will continue, that superheroes aren't going anywhere soon, and that they are here to stay because of the many reiterations that can be done with them, like Hot Topic's Avengers collection -- which turned out to be their best, quickest sell-through -- created with Her Universe and the winning designers of last year's Comic-Con fashion show. Levitt said they can't wait to get working on Suicide Squad, since it has so much to work with. She sees Harley Quinn emerging as a huge character for next year. 

Like Elhoffer, Levitt also noticed some animated properties at the convention, and while she wished there was more from TV as a whole since so much felt film-based to her, she thinks more people will be interpreting anime and cartoons into fashion.

"You can see it on the runway show. We saw the Bob's Burgers [and] Sailor Moon. If there's any trend I really saw coming up, it would probably be anime, and not just Japanese anime, but cartoons becoming more interpreted into fashion," she said. "I know we're going to be working on some more coming up, and there's a lot of fun cartoons that are kind of heating up again, we're seeing some excitement there, so that would be probably the thing that I saw a little bit of that's coming up stronger too."

Clearly, there's a lot fans have to look forward to in the realm of geek fashion, in no small part thanks to the fashions they decided to wear at this year's Comic-Con. Fashion at the convention will continue to change and impact retailers, but what will remain constant every year will be the desire people have to show their passions through what they wear and use it to connect with their fellow fans. 

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