Epidemiology of Hipsterism, Part II

Still trying to understand what the Hipster is all about.

Recently, I began a triage of hipster fashion to try and understand where hipster culture comes from, and why people who don’t affiliate with Montreal’s most pervasive subculture often refer to it with derision. Certainly, the hipster of the 40’s had a lot to do with laying out the groundwork for his contemporary successor. But between here and there lays the Beat generation, and an entire intellectual heritage behind them

Sticking with fashion, consider the browline glasses and the smoker’s Pipe. Throughout the twentieth century and before, pipes have been inseparable from many of the most important thinkers and writers of the english speaking world. J.R.R. Tolkien, Edwin Hubble, Bertrand Russell –the list literally goes on. Their pipes are as important to the cliché of the tweedy academic as a black and white photograph, and this association continued through part of the 20th century. Glasses are not much different: specifically, the browline cut (thick frame over the lenses, thin or no frame under the lenses) introduced in the 20th century, became associated with cultural figures such as Malcolm X and Lyndon B Johnson (and of course Colonel Sanders, RIP).


Malcolm X wearing browline cut glasses

Think now of a mid-century, leftist intellectual scribbling away in a smokey room, writing the next great American novel and doing drugs. Many of the Beat writers shared the San Francisco bay area with the geniuses and weirdos who started the hippy movement (for better or for worse). Your millennial hipster sympathizes with the Beat: politically progressive and a fan of marijuana. But the Beats dressed modestly; clothes were practical and fashion was not their virtue. A pipe was for smoking and glasses were for seeing. What Kerouac, Kesey and Dylan cared about were ideas and experience. Unfortunately, as with many things, hipsters seem to have borrowed the style and left the substance on the porch.

Variations of the browline are very popular at the moment

Variations of the browline are very popular at the moment (Credit to Hannah Taylor)

In the early 2000s, Luxottica bought out Ray Ban, who invented the browline cut, and began an aggressive marketing campaign to re-float the failing company, in part by targeting their glasses to the millennial crowd. It worked. Similarly, there’s evidence that pipes are coming back as a young person’s style. Blatter and Blatter is a pipe tobacconist by Place des Arts that’s been open since 1907. When approached, the guys working there admitted that a much higher proportion of their customers today are young men under 30.

Jack Kerouac's got the right idea

Jack Kerouac’s got the right idea

What’s interesting is that fashion allows us to understand some of the Hipster stereotypes. A hallmark of the modern hipster is the self-referential irony, and a moody sense of humour. They want to be a little bit fringey, and don’t expect their odd sense of dress to be understood. It’s a kind of cool that can come off as condescending. The Beats and their friends, on their part, clashed frequently with American mainstream culture, and their sense of humour reflected this.

You see it in old interviews with Bob Dylan, for example. At the height of his career, he burnt out in part because the press and his fan base invaded his aloofness. There are tapes of him making illusive jokes half to himself in a room packed with reporters, each tensely holding out a microphone to him, each trying to catch the punchline. Dylan’s greatest marketing strategy was perhaps his reservation. At the end of No Direction Home, Martin Scorcese shows the viewer the last ugly months leading up to Dylan’s long hiatus from the public eye. His cryptic sense of humour had drawn as much mad fanaticism as it did animosity.

Both the modern hipster and the Beatnik lay claim to an odd sense of humour that sets them apart. But this draws from a much older counterculture. 19th century Bohemians were that day’s equivalent of a rebellious youth. They rejected capitalism, the mercantile class, nobility and traditional social structure. They clustered in places like Paris, drank absynthe, made art, experimented with drugs, and wore unconventional clothes, often involving plain robes and unorthodox jewelry (borrowing from eastern european traditions of dress). Sound familiar?

Cultural and political commentator David Brooks explained the rise of the Bourgeoisie as an economic changing of the guards, when the middle class became more educated and started to carry more economic weight. Brooks defines one of the characteristics of the Bohemian culture, growing in opposition to the Bourgeoisie, as a kind of off-center sense of humour that seemingly could not be understood unless you were part of the in-group.

“One of them took a lobster and put him on a leash and had him march through the gardens, and he said of his lobster, ‘He does not bark and he knows the mysteries of the deep,’ which is exactly the sort of pranksterous humor that the hippies I grew up with in New York in the 1960s- they would have gone for that pranksterous humor.”

Likewise, the Beats and the Hippies were notorious for their pranksterish, even absurd sense of humour. Ken Kesey famously hung out with a big group of artists and itinerants who were internationally known in the 60s as the Merry Pranksters. Their raving parties across the US were carried on a rainbow coloured bus whose destination post above the driver’s window said only: Further.

And to think that in the center of the mad context that the Hippies and the Beats lived in, were some of the greatest writers of the century, who borrowed in the tradition of their elders, favouring simple clothes, the browline glasses and an old pipe. Hipsters today carry on some of the fashion of their elders, and maybe the hipster’s history in fashion may explain part of his personality after all.

McGill University