Times Staff Writer

IT started innocently enough, with the renaissance of the short-sleeve dress shirt, mantle of the geek, the square, the superhero in disguise.

Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and the influential L.A. label Band of Outsiders offered classed-up versions last summer, and half of Hollywood maledom shrugged off their grungy T-shirts for a look that would’ve made their grandfathers proud.

By the fall, the cardigan was on the ironic rebound, turning up in collections from Trovata to Prada in cashmere so luxe Mr. Rogers would’ve wept.


And now, for summer, the style has come into its own, if you can say that about a look that’s reminiscent of the fellows manning the desks at Mission Control during the Apollo era -- too immersed in the matters at hand to notice that changing times have pushed them to the outer margins of style and left them betrayed by cuffs hemmed a little too high, shirts tailored a little too tight and spectacles framed with plastic the density of Kevlar.

So why does raiding the IT department suddenly look so hot?

Partly, it’s who’s doing it. If one needed any proof that the previously unhip has become the dress code du jour, look no further than Maroon 5’s frontman Adam Levine’s concert uniform of slim, short-sleeve dress shirt by A.P.C., skinny black Dior Homme tie, black trousers by YSL and a clean-cut hairstyle. Or Adam Brody’s quirky yet lovable style, honed while he was on “The OC” Or Milo Ventimiglia’s on- and off-screen style. Ventimiglia, who plays male nurse-turned-superhero chameleon Peter Petrelli in “Heroes,” is a guy who keeps it classic and trim -- and never leaves the house without a pen.

The look implies that a man is secure enough in his skin to wear milquetoast on his sleeve. All hail the beta male -- the guy instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up on comic books and archetypical superhero secret identities. But on “Heroes,” Ventimiglia has to go from ordinary to extraordinary without the help of a costume change.

“One of the things they promised on the show was, no capes, no masks,” Ventimiglia says. “Besides, Peter Parker is more interesting than Spider-Man and Bruce Wayne is more interesting than Batman -- there is conflict within a real person. As a superhero they can be [tough guys], running around and taking care of business. As a regular person, there’s a struggle to do good or change things but from within the bounds of reality.”

Ventimiglia spent part of his Memorial Day weekend riffing on superheroes (he favors Aquaman and Submariner; he’d like to have “the power of persuasion” as a super power), modeling the season’s look, and sharing his thoughts about the importance of detail in men’s fashion -- and how that helps his on-screen character transition to full-on hero mode.

“As Peter Petrelli, I made two conscious decisions. One was to pop my collar up in episode nine right before my character saves the cheerleader. The second was in the season finale when I take my jacket off to beat the ... out of the bad guy.”

Off-screen, and flying without a stylist, Ventimiglia says his personal style has “no in-between.” It’s either dark simple jeans and T-shirts, or a dark suit, a white shirt and a simple tie and a pair of leather shoes. In addition to several Ralph Lauren suits and two tuxedos (one made-to-measure), his closet contains a Brooks Brothers Fitzgerald style (a slim cut with higher armholes and skinnier lapels) and several custom suits (including a blue sharkskin number) of his grandfather’s that he had recut to fit him by a tailor in Santa Monica.

His must-have accessory is a nice pen. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you’re wearing a nice suit and you pull out a Bic pen or a nice Montblanc pen it’s a bit different.”

The look, which nostalgically recalls and at the same time updates the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, has been a mainstay of Band of Outsiders’ business since designer Scott Sternberg launched in early 2004. And he says that even when taking natural growth of his line into account, “business has been rockin’ ” as demand for the look widens.

Sternberg says the key is updating the past with subtle modern touches like over-dyes and garment washes, and laying off the starch. Sternberg even ships some of his clothes without pressing them first.

“The key,” he says, “is adding finishing colors and fabrics and playing with the ideas a bit more to make it all feel a little subversive and just a little off.” It’s no surprise that Sternberg’s handiwork appears in the Mac versus PC commercials -- worn by Justin Long, who personifies the hip Mac computer.

In the end, that’s really what sets the beta male apart from his skinny-tied, high-watered brethren: a conscious embrace and an ironic strip mining of the thinking man’s wardrobe. Thom Browne’s signature shrunken jackets and ankle-grazing trousers (which won him a CFDA award and the attention of Brooks Brothers) are popular not because his runway model showed up for work three inches too tall, but because Browne designed them that way.

And that’s precisely why the comic book canon is stocked with classic beta males. Mild-mannered Clark Kent and high school whiz kid Peter Parker serve as purposeful counterweights to the uber-masculine aesthetic of Superman and Spider-Man. The rumpled cardigan and thick-framed glasses keep the alpha male at bay, and the hero is confident knowing that he’s only one phone booth away from springing into action and saving the girl.

Or in the case of a particular male nurse, just one collar-pop away from saving the cheerleader and saving the world.