Go to a formerly poor, working-class area of London or New York and sooner or later you will meet a ‘hipster.’ No doubt he will resent such a label (after all, once you have been labelled you cease to be an individual and begin to look like a poseur), but he can be easily identified by his background, style of dress, profession, and even ethnicity. Of course, there have always been groups who stand outside of, or even against, the mainstream culture: Dandies, Bohemians, Beatniks, Goths, Punks, Hippies and so on have all defined themselves in opposition to the mainstream. And the character of these groups often reveals a great deal about what they have rejected. The hipster, for example, reflects a yearning for identity and, above all, authenticity.
So what is a hipster? Hipsters tend to live in the big cities, especially post-industrial inner-city neighborhoods that were once poor, run down, and occupied by ethnic minorities. Shoreditch in East London and Williamsburg in New York are the most famous examples. In the 1990s, white, highly-educated young people, in flight from traditional middle-class professions like attorney, banker or insurance broker, moved to the ruined industrial areas of the inner cities and took them over, setting up bars, cafes and art galleries. Some called this gentrification, though it was really an attempt to re-create the college campus. The hipsters had rejected what they considered the dull life of a middle-class professional in favor of something more creative and expressive.
The hipster is usually a millennial. He (and Hipsters are more likely to be male) is likely to have been born into a white, middle-class family and raised in a leafy suburb – a background he often resents and against which he is rebelling. If you were to go in search of one, look for somebody in his twenties or thirties, with tattoos, gelled back hair (shaved above the ears) and a carefully maintained beard. He will probably be wearing old boots, tight black jeans, and a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
It may be helpful to contrast the hipster with another sub-culture group – the chap. In the U.K., a magazine titled The Chap is published bimonthly in celebration of this figure. The chaps wish to revive the English Gentleman, as depicted in Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh: someone gentlemanly, refined, polite, and urbane, a man who wears tweed, follows cricket, reads poetry, and smokes a pipe. But the chaps are more ironic, self-mocking and self-aware than the hipsters. And while a chap will happily accept his label, a hipster would probably reject his.
Authenticity and Modern Life
Of course, the search for authenticity is nothing new – the French philosopher Rousseau and the English Romantic poets were in search of the authentic back in the 18th century. The hipster, however, could be traced to more recent groups, like the 1950s Beats (Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac are perhaps the most famous), who rejected the suburban dream of two cars in the garage and plenty of shiny consumer goods. In On the Road, Kerouac’s famous novel, the characters go in search of ‘it’, meaning something authentic and real. And the novel’s popularity stemmed in part from this yearning for new adventures and new experiences. Kerouac was in love with the idea of America – with the frontier and whatever lay beyond.
The hipster, like the beat, is anti-suburban, anti-capitalist, anti-fashion and, above all, anti-conformist. In a sense, he is rebelling against the Information Age. People are more disconnected from nature and more isolated from one another than ever before. Few inhabitants of the great modern cities ever make things with their hands. They don’t grow their own food or chop their own firewood. Indeed, most spend a huge percentage of their day sat motionless before a flickering screen. Even their exercise regimen is inauthentic. Previous generations kept fit by wielding a pickaxe or plowing the soil; the modern worker goes to a local gym and uses purpose-built machines lit by artificial lights.
Hipsters and the Authentic
Hipsters live in places once inhabited by men who earned their living working on the docks or sweating inside factories, and he imitates their style of dress: heavy boots, thick jeans, old cotton shirt. This is why critics often describe hipsters as metrosexuals playing the part of macho men.
Hipsters also tend to reject office work in favor of something more creative. Go to a hipster neighbourhood and you will find people who studied law or fine arts but have now set up a business making something with their hands, like jewellery. And many establish businesses with the word ‘real’ in the title: ‘real chocolate’ for example, or ‘real beer’. These businesses are likely to be small, artisan and local. If they sell food and drink, it will probably be organic and locally sourced, thus replacing the mass-produced, fertilizer-sprayed food most people consume.
And this search for a more authentic, ‘real’ life extends even to interior design. Go to a hipster bar or hairdresser in East London or downtown New York and you will find the owner has tried to reclaim the original look and feel of the building. If his business is beneath a railway arch, or in a former factory, he may have stripped the wallpaper and carpet, exposing the bricks and floorboards. In fact, hipster cafes often resemble junk or charity shops: littered with second-hand books and mismatched, battered chairs and tables from the 1960s. There may also be vintage items. One hipster bar in London, for example, has a menu board originally used in a 1970s bus cafe.
Above all, the hipsters wish to escape the virtual world. Modern life is becoming ever more unreal – so much human interaction now takes place through video links, or on cell phones and internet discussion forums. Indeed, many people find the majority of their work, entertainment and social life takes place online. The hipster is reacting to this – yearning to re-connect with others, to ground himself in real work, real people, and real things. Hipsters will often make a point of researching the history of their neighbourhood and will try to rekindle a sense of community.
Of course, the hipsters have their critics. Many draw attention to their middle-class origins and accuse them of playing at being industrial workers. They further point out that those who really worked the factories and docks lived hard, miserable lives and would have much preferred a 21st century lifestyle. Others have noted the way big, multinational chain stores make use of hipster style to aid their business. In the film Withnail and I, set at the end of the 1960s, one of the characters laments the fact that a national superstore is selling hippy wigs. This, he says, marks the end of the decade. And the same could be said of the hipster movement. Coffee chains, and even multinational fast food outlets, now have exposed brickwork, shelves littered with curios, and mix and match shabby-chic furniture (produced en mass to make it look as though it was found in a skip) in their premises. They will also use industrialised lighting, chalk blackboards, and distressed wood tables – and yet these are the very soulless, money-driven multinationals the hipsters hate.
Whether or not the hipsters have truly found an authentic way of living, their approach in itself is revealing. The yearning for a more rooted, grounded, authentic life is not restricted to the inhabitants of London and New York. And the very things the hipsters are reacting against show no sign of disappearing. On the contrary! An ever growing population means more houses, cars and roads and less and less empty, silent spaces into which people can escape. Futurologists also stress the impact virtual reality is likely to make, with some even predicting a sort of mass exodus into the virtual world. Given these trends, the very things the hipster is seeking are likely to appeal to ever more people – even if his clothes and hair style do not.