Mexico City, 2007. A hospital bed is wheeled onstage at the Palacio de los Deportes. Tens of thousands of scene kids are in attendance: screaming, flailing, sobbing. For a moment, a strange stillness settles over the stage. Then, like a ghost, a figure in a hospital gown rises up from the sheets. His face is white and pallid, the space around his eyes smudged into dark, empty sockets. The gown is torn off and underneath, a black marching band outfit. Gerard Way: Tim Burton’s own Sergeant Pepper. This scene: my style awakening.

Like for many other preteens, My Chemical Romance’s album The Black Parade was an awakening into a different side of fashion. It offered an edge that couldn’t be found in the hot pink leggings and floral summer dresses my mum had so lovingly stuffed me into for the decade prior. I hadn’t cared much for dressing up as a child; unless it was related to Star Wars (and, admittedly, Disney princesses) - there were no home videos of me skittering around in heels, or painting on lipstick and Tracy Beaker-style blush in front of the mirror. 

But at the sight of that dyed black hair and macabre skull face paint, a different world opened up to me. One where eyeliner is caked in abundance, where hair spikes up higher and more diagonally than should be humanly possible, and black is everywhere, everywhere. With great effort, my wardrobe became a cavern of monochrome, with the occasional flicker of colour to satisfy my parents (a pair of neglected crimson jeans; piles of begrudged Christmas socks, all adorned with ‘girlish’ strawberries and love hearts). My aim was, like so many other emo kids in the early 2010s, to be as appalling and bedraggled as possible; as much akin to a living corpse as our parents would concede. Allowing only red, perhaps neon, and in the most desperate circumstances a deceptive navy blue, to infiltrate the black uniforms of skinny jeans and band tees we all so craved.

Emo has always been a particularly aesthetically fuelled genre of music. Of course, it’s not the only one – goths are known for their penchant for darkness too, albeit with more of a kleptomania for rosaries. Punk also looked to appal, with fewer side-fringes, ‘crust pants’ (pairs of trousers also adorned with DIY adjustments, as well as a distinct aversion to being washed) and the infamous mohawk hairstyle.  Meanwhile, the proprietors of grunge and heavy metal are often identified by their scruffiness, ‘battle jackets’ (denim jackets, many times with the sleeves cut off, often decorated with things like patches, enamel pins and spikes), and long, Chris Cornell-esque hair. The truth is that alternative music has always shown itself on the sleeves of its listeners, carving out a visual space for so many outsiders to express themselves through what they wear.

"Goths are known for their penchant for darkness"

And it’s not just music that does it: film, TV, books and even board games like Dungeons & Dragons have left distinct stylistic markers on those that enjoy them. Fashion is not simply a circle of trends and microtrends to be walked down the inaccessible haute couture runway, but a tool for the everyman, the outsider, even, to adorn their difference and, in many cases, to wear their nerd-dom proudly. 

At a recent music festival, my friend pointed out a flaming pentagram symbol inked on the ankle of a fellow Pearl Jam fan. To a casual observer, it could be an interesting, if slightly occult-leaning, choice of tattoo; to fans of the CW show Supernatural, it was a beacon of fellow enthusiasts, a reaching out to those who had also sat down through all those fifteen seasons of elaborate monster hunting to know, wordless and smug, that here too was a fellow fan. Think of Season 4 of Stranger Things now, and the popularity of the viscerally nerdy ‘Hellfire Club’ shirts that have taken fans and non-fans of the show alike by storm; or the explosion of Star Wars merch following the success of The Mandalorian – nowadays it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing a Baby Grogu somewhere on the street. Nerd culture is everywhere.

"A tool for the everyman, the outsider, even, to adorn their difference and, in many cases, to wear their nerd-dom proudly"

Stranger Things' Eddie Munson has popularised the 'Hellfire Club' shirt

The crux of the matter is that the isolation of being considered ‘different’ or ‘nerdy’ can be combated by style. I remember being 13 and thrilled as a group of older teenagers called out to me that they ‘liked my shirt’ (in spidery white letters it read, ‘Normal People Scare Me’, an American Horror Story reference, now a sure-fire, incredibly dated sign of 2015 Tumblr edge). Wearing my unabashedly cringe nerd interests for all the world to see, it was a way for me to feel comfortable, finally, in my own skin.