Rethinking Hipsters

Text by Rob Alderson
Illustration by Amaris Chen

Cultural high-water marks are hard to spot contemporaneously. In Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson writes that five or six years after the counterculture’s apogee in the mid 1960s “you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see…that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” At the time though it’s almost impossible to identify—each new line in the sand is soon swept away.

So it is with hipsterism. As Ed Cumming put it in The Observer newspaper: “Twenty-first-century hipsterism can be hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Beards, plaid, tattoos, thick glasses, fixed-gear bicycles, artisanal breads (artisanal anything, really), Apple products, cold-pressed juices…”

Increasingly ubiquitous, having long triffid-ed out of the east London enclaves with which its most associated—Dalston, Shoreditch, Old Street—commentators have called out the high-water mark of hipsterism on several occasions. The opening of a dedicated cereal café. Bizarre research suggesting society has reached “peak beard.” The popular Twitter feed @wewantplates that collates the strange selection of objects on which trendy eateries serve their meals (think burgers served in a briefcase or chips on an old vinyl record, both real examples).

In June last year The Guardian ran an article headlined “The end of the hipster: how flat caps and beards stopped being so cool”; 11 months later the London Evening Standard declared definitively “Death of the hipster: why London decided to move on from beards, beanies and fixie bikes.”

But it seems the tide keeps on rolling. Not only that but serious thinkers are starting to treat hipsterism with more respect. A recent book called The Flat White Economy analysed the financial impact of the hipster digital economy on London (since publication, it should be noted that author Douglas McWilliams has had some legal troubles but they don’t seem relevant here). McWilliams writes that the FWE currently provides 7.6% of the UK’s GDP, by 2025 he estimates it will make up nearly 16% and be the country’s largest single commercial sector.

He’s less surefooted on the cultural side of hipsterism but there’s some great facts in there. Since 2007 coffee sales in London have risen 50% (in the same period champagne sales have dropped by a quarter). A 2013 survey found that almost exactly half of the vehicles using Old Street during the morning rush hour were bikes.

McWilliams also has a good explanation for how quickly the hipster look has spread—because it’s cheap to recreate. Born out of communities that didn’t have lots of cash to splash, hipster culture is by its very nature low-cost—although London being London there’s an increasing high-value hipster economy where they’ll happily charge you a tenner for a sourdough sandwich.

The flipside of all this has been the mockery; the speed at which hipster went from being a fairly neutral noun to a sneering adjective was brutal. In The Telegraph Michael Hogan shared a theory that may help explain both the rise of hipsterism and its changing role.

“Underdogs who spent school breaktimes in the IT or art room, avoiding bullies and not getting the girl, are now top dogs,” he wrote. “They’re dotcom billionaires, tech entrepreneurs, superstar DJs…However, what happens when a generation gains power is that their revolutionary spirit gets watered down. Subcultures become the mainstream. Outsiders become insiders, fresh turns stale and the dominant taste grows dull.”

He may well be right, but it would be a shame if the creative community distanced itself too much from hipsterism. Yes it may have evolved into something ugly at worst, blandly commercial at best, but some of its initial values are still important and shouldn’t be jettisoned just because plaid shirts have become stereotypical. Let the posers pose, we’ve got work to do.

Rob Alderson is a London-based writer and previously Editor-in-Chief at It’s Nice That.

From The U Press N˚1 (London edition).