Computer scientists have long been saddled with the reputation of being poorly dressed professionals, but are geeks really that unfashionable? The nerdy style that has evolved alongside influential technology certainly has made an impact on the fashion world. Tech leaders with little interest in style developed iconic looks that inadvertently altered business dress codes forever.
Before Computers, there were Women
The word “computer” didn’t always represent an electrical device. At one point it was a job description. During World War II, some women worked as “computers” solving long mathematical equations for the military. NASA also employed a group of women who worked as “computers” conducting space research. Coined the “Rocket Girls,” these women helped develop technology that would lead to putting men on the moon in 1969. Blouses, sweater sets, and mid-calf skirts were the norm.
The Roots of Geekdom
There wasn’t much of a reason to dress up when Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft in an Albuquerque motel off Route 66 in 1975, or when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in Jobs’ garage in Los Altos, California, in 1976. Thus, the earliest computer geeks sported comfortable clothes like jeans, polos, T-shirts, sweaters, and button-ups. The tech industry also established roots on the casual-dressing West Coast.
— Bill Gates in an article he wrote for Gizmodo
Steve Jobs’ Signature Look
Steve Jobs may never have intended to become a fashion icon, but blue jeans and black turtlenecks will forever be linked to the tech mogul. In the early ’80s, after Apple employees shut down his idea for corporate uniforms, Jobs hired Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake to make him 100 black turtlenecks. He stuck to his personal uniform until the day he died in 2011.
— Jobs to journalist Walter Isaacson in his biography, Steve Jobs
The Apple Collection
Apple releases “The Apple Collection,” a fashion line featuring the rainbow-colored logo.
English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web
Nerds Shape Business Casual
As small tech businesses turned into major corporations, many accomplished computer scientists still were opting for casual clothes rather than suits and ties. The look of a successful pro could no longer be simplified with formal attire.
— Mark Evan Blackman of the Fashion Institute of Technology to The New York Times
Google.com is registered
Facebook is founded
Fewer Women in Tech
As tech businesses boomed, fewer women were getting in on the action. In 2005, the Information Technology Association of America released a report that the percent of women in information technology fields declined from 41 percent in 1996 to 32.4 percent in 2004. The alarming statistics inspired the formation of several nonprofits that encourage girls to study computer science. There’s never been a definitive style for women in tech. However, the casual roots of the industry affected their dress as well.
The first iPhone hits stores
A Billionaire and His Hoodie
Tech leaders’ casual dress hasn’t been praised by everyone. When Facebook stock went public in 2012, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wore his gray T-shirt and hoodie to meet with potential investors on Wall Street. Some analysts interpreted his casual clothes as a sign of disrespect. Others thought he was just being true to himself.
— Mark Zuckerberg, on his simplistic wardrobe at a public Q&A session in 2014
Sometime between the 1970s and today, being a geek became cool. Perhaps enough tormented dorky teens grew up to be ultra-successful millionaires that the status quo morphed. Now, businesses are more open to less-conventional ways of dress in the workplace. Programmers still have a reputation for looking less than, shall we say, polished. But hey, Satya Nadella is the most stylish CEO Microsoft has seen. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is no fashion slob, either, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has more than a few tailored blazers in his closet. Perhaps the tech industry has grown into its clothes. Or maybe formerly strict businesses have just grown out of theirs.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of “425 Business.”