What Can We Learn By Learning About Hipsters?

Hipsters, we’ve all seen them, and most of us can probably point them out in a crowd.  At the moment, the term “hipster” calls to mind a certain breed of twenty and thirty somethings that exist in most metropolitan cities in America. Their dress often includes skinny jeans, too-tight flannel shirts, vintage horn-rimmed eyeglasses and ironic facial hair (for men).  They take pride in “fixie” bikes and listening to unsigned indie rock bands.  It’s not uncommon to find a hipster in the process of cultivating a tattoo sleeve.

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Yet, the simple Lose Weight Exercise of thinking through what represents a hipster is an interesting one.  First, bounding the idea of what makes a hipster is fairly difficult. Aside from these obvious cultural symbols, what do hipsters stand for? What is their ethos? What are their dress and their appropriated cultural symbols rebelling against or supporting?

Asking how the modern hipster came to be begs many questions around the diffusion of cultural meaning via new media technologies, the paradoxes inherent with trying to create a counter-culture within a capitalist model, and whether a true counter-culture is even possible at this moment in Western society given our increasingly globalized world.

In short, investigating how hipsters came to be, and how they have changed as an identifiable group of people, promises to teach us a great deal about the shifts, more generally, in our society.  This is an idea I’m playing with for my master’s thesis (so ahem, expect more blogging on this subject to come).  But before I start down this rabbit hole, humor me please with a simple thought Lose Weight Exercise.

How would you define a hipster? The definition, as well as the cultural symbols and the ethos associated with the movement (if you can call it that) changes fairly rapidly.

As a case and point, I’ll take you through how the definition, according to UrbanDictionary.com, has changed just within the last four years:

August 16,2004
“The hipster mecca is in williamsburg brooklyn. it’s a subculture of kids born in the 80’s. it started with mutton chops & buddy holly glasses, but has now progressed progressed into trucker caps, pointy shoes, and the god awful rehash of the mullet…typically, hipsters are “slumming it” on mommy & daddy’s dime. a full blown hipster reduces himself by never wearing anti-perspirant & appearing to be poor. drink of choice is rheingold, or pabst blue ribbon beer” [sic].

May 28, 2006
“Listens to bands that you have never heard of. Has hairstyle that can only be described as “complicated.” (Most likely achieved by a minimum of one week not washing it.) Probably tattooed. Definitely cooler than you. Reads Black Book, Nylon, and the Styles section of the New York Times. Drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon. Often. Complains. Always denies being a hipster” [sic].

November 22, 2007
“Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter. The greatest concentrations of hipsters can be found living in the Williamsburg, Wicker Park, and Mission District neighborhoods of major cosmopolitan centers such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco respectively. Although “hipsterism” is really a state of mind, it is also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities. Hipsters reject the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often be seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick rimmed glasses” [sic].

And the most recent definition, posted on February 15, 2008:
“Today’s 2008 hipster definition has flipped around. the hipster these days is the normal average everyday walmart/starbucks shopper. walmart is bigger than jesus. he drives a normal car, listens to normal mainstream rock and pop, hangs out at the mall and starbucks, eats mcdonalds and applebees.he lives a predictable and forgettable life. because punk and emo have become so prominent in the last few years” [sic].

So…are hipsters simply the 21st century version of a counter-culture made mainstream by capitalist actors who borrowed their symbols of rebellion for a new consumer audience? Is there meaning behind the cultural symbols and styles that hipsters have appropriated from past eras? What can we learn, more broadly, by attending to the socio-economic factors inherent with hipsterdom? Was there ever truly a cultural ethos behind this movement, or is it merely a fashion trend?  My hope is that an investigation around these questions will speak to larger answers about our society: How are the cultural symbols produced and disseminated via new media communication technologies shaping sub-cultures? Who are the actors involved in this process? Is it truly possible to be intentionally “counter” in one’s look and dress while doing so through capitalist system of production?

What do you think we can learn by learning about hipsters?
For those of you looking to catch-up up on hipsterdom, check out the “Hipster Olympics” video on YouTube; it escapsulates the current personification of a hipster rather brilliantly.


Lauren Alfrey

Lauren worked as the Managing Editor of gnovis in 2009 and graduated with an MA in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University in 2010. Lauren is currently a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lauren joined gnovis and CCT after working for three years as an online fundraising and advocacy consultant for progressive nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to her professional work, Lauren graduated with honors from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she majored in Communication and minored in Art History with a focus on women's representation in print advertising and high art.