A not so long time ago in a store near you, a girl would have to settle for a boxy, ill-fitting T-shirt made for boys if she wanted to wear something that represented her favorite band, movie or other pop culture obsession. For those unwilling to make do with those unflattering cuts and sizes, the interesting, quirky world of DIY shirts, dresses — and even bras — made by women in the same situation was the only alternative.
Luckily, times are changing. Women with adventurous taste have more fitting clothing options than ever before. Actress Ashley Eckstein has seen and welcomed this change first hand. The enterprising 30-year-old is the founder of Her Universe, the first merchandise line designed exclusively for female science-fiction fans.
“As short as four years ago, companies looked at female fans as an afterthought,” Eckstein, who voices a character on the animated TV series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," told TODAY.com. “Companies designed 20 shirts for men and would say maybe we need a shirt for girls and throw a pink shirt in and call it a day.”
It was a problem Eckstein was quite familiar with. She'd been a devout "Star Wars" fan since she was a child, but only had one T-shirt design option open to her, while her equally obsessed husband had no fewer than 10 different varieties to choose from. After researching the issue, Eckstein discovered that almost half of all sci-fi fans were women and about 80 percent of consumer purchases were made by women, yet there was a huge lack of any genre-specific merchandise specifically tailored to female fans.
“I scoured the Internet thinking, more [T-shirts] existed, but I didn't find anything and I knew I was not alone [in my search] because of at Comic-Con and 'Star Wars' events women were everywhere.”
In an effort to fill the gap, Eckstein partnered with The Araca Group and started her own clothing company in 2009. At first featuring only "Star Wars"-themed merchandise, Her Universe has since expanded to include collections based off of Syfy network shows like "Battlestar Galactica" and just this year signed deals with CBS Consumer Products to sell "Star Trek" merchandise and BBC America to sell products inspired by the British television show "Doctor Who".
Female fans finally get noticed
Eckstein’s company isn’t the only one moving in to cater to the ladies. Over the last few years, a number of stores have expanded their pop culture collections for women, including Hot Topic.
A store well known for its affinity for pop culture, Hot Topic tries to listen to what the growing community of fans wants by attending conventions and events across the country. In particular, they’ve seen a growing number of women at San Diego Comic-Con, which is a big change from the early days, according to Cindy Levitt, vice president general merchandise manager for Hot Topic.
“We’ve always had female interest, but the direction has changed in the last couple of years,” Levitt told TODAY.com. “We used to girl things up, but they don’t want Catwoman on a shirt. They want Batman. Girls may want it on a cute dolman sleeve T-shirt, but they want the images to be kind of what the guys have been wearing.”
According to Levitt, women seem to be more interested in sci-fi and comic books than ever before, leading Hot Topic to partner with companies like Her Universe to fill the blossoming demand for related products.
ThinkGeek, a website with products for "technophiles and geeks," has also partnered with Her Universe to try to placate the increasing need.
“True [female] fans have always been there, and with a resurgence of geek finding its way to the mainstream, more fans -- both men and women — are being introduced to those things,” Steve Zimmermann, press manager for ThinkGeek told TODAY.com.
So why are female fans suddenly more open about what they want?
"I think we are now starting to wake up and say 'no, we don’t want to deal with this anymore' and if we do speak up, people will listen and it’s becoming more accepted to like sci-fi from a social standpoint,” said Eckstein. “We finally opened our mouths.”
Proving skeptics wrong
It also helps that companies like Her Universe are proving the stereotypes wrong. According to Eckstein, a number of companies told her that female fans just aren't interested in and don't buy science fiction and similarly themed merchandise. It is the primary claim she's striving to debunk. "We said we'll prove you wrong," asserted the actress, "and we did."
Growth of geeky DIY
The idea of 'do it yourself' fashion is nothing new, but it's been growing in pop culture-related fashion as women try to fill the void that companies are finally noticing. You can find a lot of pop culture-themed DIY items on Etsy, from underwear to jewelry.
Ashley Mertz started making her own 'Geek Chic Fashion' items and selling them on Etsy via her store Go Chase Rabbits because she felt there was a lack of options for women.
“I wanted to create everyday options for girls to wear,” Mertz told TODAY.com. "I honestly didn't know how much it was going to take off once I started and have had so many requests it's hard to keep up sometimes.”
While her initial aim was to craft everyday clothes that showed off a love for certain elements of pop culture, Mertz has been fielding requests from customers looking for clothes to wear to events.
“Many customers request skirts for the conventions, which have become so widespread and 'cool,' which is what's great about how things are changing so that geek is the new chic.”
If you're looking for something a bit more personal, the Etsy store SceeneShoes sells hand-painted shoes, as well as the ultimate girl item: bras. Design-themes range from Super Mario Brothers to Hello Kitty.
Eckstein encourages DIY, having felt that desire to create something that she felt was missing in the market. She believes mixing homemade designs with store-bought items completes an outfit. It’s part of the reason she hosted a panel called “Are You a Geek Girl Trendsetter?” at San Diego Comic-Con on July 14.
“I also wanted [Her Universe] to be a community for female fans, a safe place for female fans to come out of hiding,” said the entrepreneur.
When asked if she will ever expand to making clothes for men, Eckstein simply replies by saying the rest of the world is "his" universe.
TODAY.com writer Lisa Granshaw is happy to have been able to gradually shove all the boxy guy T-shirts to the back of her drawers, replacing them with “Star Wars,” “Doctor Who” and other geek-wear made just for women