Epidemiology of Hipsterism

Hipster Montrealis: Mammal, postmodern family.
Habitat: Mile End.
Conservation status: Not threatened.

The story of being frustrated by hipster culture starts when you move to this city with an outsider’s perspective. When I came to Montreal, a hipster was no more to me than a vague collection of stereotypes based on fashion and music. Moving here forces you to become more comfortable with what is easy to think of as hipster pretension: the predominantly (upper) middle-class white kids who dress down with eclectic results. But they’ve been around for longer than anyone thinks, and as hipsters outlived the seasons they went from a fringy political monolith to a fashionably diverse group of un-diverse people.

Illustrating the hipster’s social identity begins with the lens of fashion. To begin: look at Zoot suits. If you live in Montreal you’ve seen modified versions of these about, though you may not realize it. Think oversized jackets with huge lapels you could land a plane on, and high-waisted trousers that flared at the thigh and tapered to a rolled cuff, often accompanied by suspenders to keep the whole apparatus in place are all features of the Zoot suit, and some of these elements have reemerged in popular fashion. They hail from the 1940s, and are an excellent starting point to understand how that decade helped create the hipster.

4719852874_76c08c07d9_bMore than the nomenclature, the decade of world war and jazz created a subculture of disenfranchised youth in North America whose sentiments were best described by Norman Mailer:

The presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture…that post-war generation of adventurers who (some consciously, some by osmosis) had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War.

In essence, Mailer was describing the discord a generation felt towards misbehaving governments, and the nuclear proliferation that would later follow. The response of these people was an aloof detachment, and rejection of social correctness, which was manifested through the popularization of jazz music, promiscuous use of marijuana, a more open attitude to sex, and certainly in the way they dressed. Some of these people, who called themselves hipsters too, went on to great success; Bing Crosby was notoriously a hipster and certainly a part of the jazz tradition which gave us the word ‘hip’. But the hipster fought to be different (as all subcultures ultimately do) because of the pressures of what was expected of young adults at the time.

Basically, the ostentatious style of menswear they adopted was designed to use as much fabric as possible, a ‘fuck you’ to the textile rations that the US government put in place during the war, as a protest against the war itself and as a statement about personal freedom.

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The trend blew up across North America. Although menswear has definitely gone to favouring slim cuts, many of the elements of the counter-culture’s dress code seem to have been picked up in contemporary hipsterism. The tapered trousers, the rolled cuffs, the occasional pair of suspenders or the cheeky bow tie…They all reference a once politically independent youth culture, but sadly have been rebranded. Today, hipsterism seems to carry strong pretensions of idleism that may be the source of why they frustrate so many people so damn much. Dan Fletcher, writing for TIME magazine, perhaps expresses this frustration best:

Hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely-black jazz musicians they followed…The word would fade for years until it was reborn in the early ’90s, used again to describe a generation of middle-class youths interested in an alternative art and music scene. But instead of creating a culture of their own, hipsters proved content to borrow from trends long past. Take your grandmother’s sweater and Bob Dylan’s Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst and bam — hipster.

The absurdity of it seems to be how unproductive hipster culture is, and perhaps that is what remains the strangest part of it. Randomly mashing clothes from eras that aren’t yours isn’t necessarily unique. In some cases, it comes off a bit incoherent. It’s also impossibly self-referential, and nothing seems new.

Prof. Farnsworth is low-key McGill's favourite professor

Prof. Farnsworth is low-key McGill’s favourite professor

That being said, hipster fashion has been around long enough now that demarcations are starting to appear. One can walk down any street in the Mile End and see (and I encourage you to pay attention the next time you do) organic, lumberjack-y west coast types that you might find in Vancouver or Portland, as well as the more high-maintenance types you might associate with east coast prep, or from the continent, from where our ever bilingual city still draws a lot of cultural influence.

So maybe hipsterism has been good for fashion, but has it eroded a lot of the meaning behind what people used to wear? Maybe that’s just left a creative vacuum, which isn’t so bad. Or maybe it’s just fashion, and the whole issue gets blown out of proportion.

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