Are We All Hipsters Now?
Illustration by Mr Joe McKendry
Artisan coffee, big beards and a bit of an attitude – hipsterism is here to stay. Mr Peter York’s new documentary explores the cultural stereotype and why it’s sticking.
The hipster, it seems, is the cultural stereotype that refuses to bow out quietly, no matter how many times it is pronounced dead by The Guardian, no matter how many people sneer at its most common signifiers. Testimony to this fact is the premiere this week of Peter York’s Hipster Handbook, a BBC4 documentary from Mr Peter York, the former Harpers & Queen style editor who helped coin the term “Sloane Ranger” in the 1980s. In the course of the film, Mr York travels to observe various hipster types at close quarters, watching a man have his beard sculpted, (“Get it well-rounded, get a good shape going on”), meeting makers of craft ales and artisan sourdough toasties in railway arches in east London, and then jetting to New York to meet among others, the controversial chocolatiers, the Mast Brothers.
Beneath the humour lurks serious intellectual intent. Together with cultural commentators such as Mr Thomas Frank, author of The Conquest Of Cool, Mr Mark Greif, author of What Was The Hipster, and Ms Harriet Walker of The Times, Mr York uses the documentary to pick apart the hipster phenomenon one carefully shaped beard at a time. Still, the question remains: weren’t we supposed to have reached peak facial hair back in 2014? No, not all asserts Mr York.
“There are two timescales in the world,” he says. “Fashion People’s Time: the ‘Oh I saw that last week, it’s so over’ attitude. The other, is Real People’s Time. The moment that fashion people affect to be bored by something, is the moment that it potentially becomes a real world phenomenon.”
In fact, while it might seem astonishing to those living outside Brooklyn, Shoreditch and Portland, it’s only now that hipsterism is being absorbed into the mainstream. Sightings of bare brick and jam-jar cocktail bars on Manchester’s Canal Street, branches of Sheffield Pret A Mangers done up to look like warehouses, and the emergence of hipster footballers such as Messrs Daniel Sturridge and Raul Meireles, are all signs that hipsterism, like the yuppies of the 1980s or celebrity bling of the 2000s, is now the emerging and dominant lifestyle aspiration of our time.
There’s no Shoreditch House in Milton Keynes just yet, but it’s getting there, insists Mr York. “You have to know the difference between a trend and a fad,” he says. A fad is rolled up jeans. A trend is a way of living shaped by major socio-economic forces.”
“Hipsterland, like the gentrified Williamsburg, is a place where you never have to grow up”
And it’s these forces that perhaps explain why the hipster has become such a dominant cultural phenomenon. For example, what one retailer of vintage clothing describes as a “masculinity gap” – a general confusion around gender – helps to explain the hipster’s appropriation of traditional masculine symbols, such as beards and workwear. Then there’s the feeling of extended adolescence faced by many young adults in Western countries, what Mr York describes as “people living a sort of student life well into their thirties, putting off the big decisions… Hipsterland, like the gentrified Williamsburg, is a place where you never have to grow up.”
Of course, hipsterism is fueled by technology, too. It’s technology that’s created the groovy, freelance consultancy jobs in digital marketing and app design. It’s technology that allows hipsters to sit in coffee shops with a laptop as fully fledged members of what the urban theorist Mr Richard Florida calls, “The Creative Class”. It’s technology and, more specifically, the information-saturated experience of the internet, that continues to sustain the hipster’s highly developed sense of irony and careful curation.
Now, buoyed by a culture that encourages and provokes his most marked habits, the hipster is pretty much set to replace the yuppie, and is his equivalent in many ways. “A cool digital agency in 2016 is similar to what was known as a ‘hot shop’ in the 1980s, an up-and-coming traditional advertising agency,” says Mr York. “The hipster, potentially, is on his way to making some serious money. Rather than being a tribal group in the old way, they’re a sort of market segment.”
Here Mr York hits on a key truth – unlike the original “hipsters” of the 1940s, who rebelled against all aspects of the straight world around them, contemporary hipsters typically seem to exercise their non-conformism through shopping (whether it’s for outré retro styles or artisanal produce). As Ms Harriet Walker of The Times says in the documentary, hipsterism was “the first counter cultural movement or youth culture movement that had nothing at its core... it was horribly commercial in a way, and fundamentally kind of empty.”
What this means is that the modern hipster’s rebellion was not so much televised as flawlessly art directed and put up on Instagram as part of a 360-degree content marketing campaign. It’s a Ms Marie Antoinette-ish rebellion of gourmet foodstuffs which looks like alternative living but is comfortably capitalist at heart. It’s summed up brilliantly by the prodigiously bearded Mr Rick Mast of the artisan chocolatiers Mast Brothers, who says in the documentary, “In the 1960s you might have picked up your guitar, but nowadays you open up a café.” Such an attitude is not a million miles away from that most influential of marketing concepts, the American Dream. Which makes it the perfect lifestyle to be absorbed on an ongoing basis into major advertising campaigns – the ones with smiling people in thrift-store outfits, drinking botanical concoctions out of quirky receptacles, to a tunefully twee indie rock soundtrack. Hipsterism survives because it’s being constantly fed back to us.
Ultimately then, whatever you think about hipsters, there’s a pretty good chance you are one. Aged 72, Mr York admits, “Even I may have become slightly hipster myself. It’s very easy to slip into.” Sorry about that.
Peter York’s Hipster Handbook airs on BBC4 on 3 November