'Geek couture' and the rise of the fangirl

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The lights came down and the crowd hushed. The model who sashayed down the runway looked, in many respects, like any other catwalk pro: rocking high heels, a fitted red couture gown enveloping her tall, slim figure. But she was also different. Her grin peeked out from behind a pair of gigantic aviator shades, and just then, the blue LED light circle on her chest lit up.

It was an arc reactor, just like Iron Man's.


ABOVE: The Iron Man-inspired gown. CREDIT: Fusion

The look was one of 36 inspired by the designer's favorite sci-fi or fantasy series. Another model strolled past the crowd in a dress version of the Iron Throne. "The Hunger Games," "Doctor Who," "Lord of the Rings," and even "Spongebob Squarepants" were all represented in the show, which took place at this year's San Diego Comic-Con.

Fusion asked Ashley Eckstein — whose company Her Universe co-sponsored the show with retailer Hot Topic — what her favorite look from the show was.

"That's like asking a mom to pick between her children," she replied.

Eckstein had to play favorites, picking the final 36 looks out of 160 designs. A grueling task for "mom," but she did mention a few favorites: The "Hunger Games" dress modeled by Adrienne Curry, a wedding gown based on "The Hobbit," and the Spongebob dress.


"Who would have ever thought 'Spongebob Squarepants couture'?" she laughed. "That's what a geek fashion show is about. Never in a million years would I have looked at Spongebob and thought of that design."


ABOVE: Spongebob couture. CREDIT: Fusion


ABOVE: Adrienne Curry modeling a gown based on Effie Trinket from "The Hunger Games." CREDIT: Her Universe via Facebook

Eckstein founded Her Universe in 2010 out of what she calls "a very selfish place." As a voice actor on the animated series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and a self-professed lifelong geek girl, she wanted more fandom items to wear. Items designed for women, specifically. And she had a lot of trouble finding them.


"I went shopping for merchandise made for women, and I quickly came up empty-handed," Eckstein told Fusion. "I realized that it didn't exist."

As she researched shopping habits, Eckstein said she found that women compose roughly half of all sci-fi and fantasy fans and make 80 percent of all consumer purchases.


"The numbers weren't adding up," Eckstein said. "I thought, 'You know, if you make stuff for us, for women, we would buy it.'"

At the fashion show, guest judge Justine Ezarik — better known as vlogger iJustine — said she'd faced a similar problem finding women-centered merch.


"Growing up, I loved video games," she told the crowd. She wanted to show off her love with t-shirts, but there weren't any in the girls' department. "I used to have to shop in the little boy's section to find something to wear."

Like any good entrepreneur, Eckstein took it upon herself to fill that void. Today, the Her Universe site offers more than 200 pieces of clothing and jewelry made for women. Recently, they announced a partnership with Studio Ghibli and a flash sale of R2-D2-inspired baubles.


RELATED: Want to see more dresses from the show? 'Her Universe' showcases geek fashion

It's just a small part of the increased visibility of women in the historically boys-only sphere of all things geeky. Dina Kampmeyer, who attended her ninth Comic-Con this year, says she's seen lots more lady-directed merchandise just in the past few years.


"I was thinking about that this year," Kampmeyer told Fusion. "I went to a panel and ThinkGeek was there. I've been shopping there for like 10 years. There was nothing for women when I started, and I mean nothing."

But that began to change.

"I started to see them sell t-shirts in women's sizes — not just the guy's shirt in a female style! — and better quality, better fit," Kampmeyer said. "My response was to buy anything I could get my hands on."


The attendee numbers reflect that interest: Roughly 40 percent of the annual 130,000 attendees at San Diego Comic-Con are women. At other comics conventions around the country, the percentage of female attendees has increased in the past few years by up to 60 percent and, in some cases, outnumbered male attendance.

When Her Universe first launched, Kampmeyer said she bought anything and everything they offered, just to support the site. Now, they have so many offerings that she can't afford to keep up — instead, she gets to pick and choose which ones she wants.


"We're getting to a point where we can make informed decisions and have choices" when it comes to buying fandom-inspired items, Kampmeyer said. "It's definitely been a shift the last couple years."


ABOVE: A knitting set available for purchase at the "Lord of the Rings" booth at this year's Comic-Con. Items geared toward women have become more and more popular and visible at the convention. CREDIT: Fusion

The Internet has, in general, been a great tool for women to find fellow lady nerds and connect with their fandoms. About five years ago, Kampmeyer met a group of like-minded women on Twitter, and they put together an online group geared toward geek girls. Today, blogs like The Mary Sue cater specifically to women.


Elisa Melendez, a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate in comparative sociology, says the Internet has been a real blessing for nerdy girls like herself. Sites like Tumblr and Oh No They Didn't have facilitated online spaces for women in fandoms. While there are still men who feel the need to accuse women of being "fake geek girls," it's slowly becoming easier to be loud and proud about your deep and abiding love for "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," or "The Avengers."

In 2010, a little girl made national headlines when her mom wrote about how she'd come home from school and admitted her classmates made fun of her "Star Wars" lunch box, teasing her and saying it was only for boys. Eckstein says the future of fandoms will hopefully be younger and younger women getting involved and being vocal about their inner geeks.


"Even right now as teenagers, it's cool to be a 'Doctor Who' fan. Chances are you aren't going to be made fun of in high school right now for liking ‘Doctor Who,’" Eckstein said. "But for little girls, there is still bullying going on. … So when a little girl likes 'Star Wars' and wears a 'Star Wars' shirt to school, it's still very much happening that boys are making fun of her."

A lot of it has to do with what Eckstein calls the "education process" of gently informing men that women can like the same things as them. And that they have for a long time — "female fans were always there," Eckstein told Fusion. Today, they just feel more comfortable putting themselves out there.


"It's becoming the norm to look at a convention like San Diego Comic-Con and have the understanding that it transcends gender, that both genders love these stories and characters equally," Eckstein said. "It's not a boys' thing, its not a girls' thing. These stories are universal and you shouldn't put a gender on them."

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