Beyond hipster: The meaning of style in an elusive subculture

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By Keesje Heldoorn

There are many definitions of the hipster, however rarely do two writers agree. Most articles about hipsters provide a list of characteristics and interests. Fashion items such as thick-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans and trucker hats are mentioned. As are preferred modes of transportation (fixed gear bicycle and used sedans) and favoured beverages such as locally brewed organic coffee and PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon, a brand of beer). Based on these characteristics everyone seems to be able to point out a hipster when passing one on the street, but when asked to give a definition no one really knows. The hipster seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once. When turning to the internet for some clarification this is what I find: ‘Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20s and 30s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence and witty banter’ (Urban Dictionary). According to Wikipedia, Hipster refers to a subculture of young, recently settled urban middle-class adults and older teenagers that appeared in the 1990s. The subculture is associated with independent music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, liberal or independent political views, alternative spirituality or atheism, and alternative lifestyles. Whatever definition used, when googling the word hipster it seems as if everyone agrees on one thing: they all hate hipsters.

Tracing an elusive culture

In popular media hipsters represent everything that is perceived as terrible about modern society. They are portrayed as being obsessed with consumer goods, extremely judgmental, arrogant, and generally lacking in substance. They are used to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it. The only thing they care about is being cool and nothing but cool. This hipster hate seems to be spreading like a wildfire and the label is freely applied to everyone who meets the characteristics. This makes me wonder, I love fashion, art, organic food and value independent thinking – does that make me a hipster? I don’t listen to independent music or have any alternative political views but that doesn’t seem to matter. I have been labelled a hipster more often than I can count, even though I listen to Rihanna and shop at H&M and Zara. There is not one definition of a hipster that is ever agreed upon, yet there are all these preconceptions based on certain consumer goods that we associate with a certain attitude and a certain appearance.

The hipster culture is the first subculture not to acknowledge its own existence. No self-respecting hipster will ever admit to being a hipster. This appears to be the first and most important rule of being a hipster. Hipsters won’t conform to people and products of mass culture while simultaneously sharing the same views with others within their ‘subculture’. They conform in their non-conformity. This so-called hipster paradox has been heavily criticized by non-members. The elusiveness of hipsterdom is the core of the subculture. It is all about differentiating oneself from mainstream society. In order to remain distinct hipster culture is constantly changing. As soon as the hipster style reaches popular culture or mainstream society, abandonment must be taken into consideration. Due to the constant change and shifts of style it can be hard to identify where the subculture begins and ends. These shifts in style occur even faster due to the widespread use of Internet and other new technologies. The time it takes for a fashion trend to move from expression of individual style to something photographed, blogged, reported on, turned into a trend, marketed and sold, has rapidly dwindled (Greif et al., 2010).

There has been much discussion surrounding the hipster culture. Yet, despite broad coverage in magazines and newspapers, very little scientific research has been done on this popular subject. Furthermore, due to the constant flux and evolution of hipster culture there is a lack of accurate knowledge about this contemporary counter-culture. The volatility and elusiveness of the hipster culture as well as the technological changes in modern society cause for previous research to be quickly outdated. Most research regarding this subject focuses on the external characteristics of the hipster culture, such as clothes and accessories, which provides for knowledge that is mostly superficial, stereotypical, and thus often inaccurate. Therefore, in this research paper I will take a look at the underlying dynamics of the hipster culture, using an insider perspective as someone being labelled a ‘hipster’ myself.

In this paper hipster culture will be used as a case study to investigate how subcultures become visible through expression of style. The following research question is hereby established: How do young people moving in hipster circles use performance of style to maintain subcultural distinction? Since hipster culture is a phenomenon that is emerging all over the world, especially with the rise of the internet, this research can be placed in a transnational context. Typically hipsters are in their late teens or twenties which makes a large part of the hipster culture also a youth culture. The results of this research can thus contribute to more empirically-grounded understanding of this hipster culture as well as the importance of fashion in contemporary youth cultures in general.

This paper is based on fieldwork and personal experience in Amsterdam, the Dutch capital known for its free-spirited people and tolerant residents. In order to examine the hipster culture an ethnographic research has been conducted, including observations at Jimmy Woo, a famous club, and face-to-face individual interviews with ‘hipster’ fashion lovers. However, complications arise when studying the hipster scene as a subculture. First of all, the global popularity of the hipster aesthetic makes it nearly impossible to distinguish authentic members from commercial actors or posers. The second complication is that most members of this identity category shun the label used to define them. Therefore, in the interviews the subjective experiences have been emphasized without mentioning the word ‘hipster’. Unspoken mutual recognition requires unspoken self-recognition. Naming and applying labels breaks the spell of unspoken recognition.

As mentioned, the ‘hipster’ label has been applied to me more than once, which got me wondering, what is a ‘hipster’? And am I a ‘hipster’? After some researching I still don’t think of myself as a ‘hipster’, since not all of the characteristics apply to me. But then again, there is no clear definition of what a ‘hipster’ is, which could still make me one. Since the same applies to my research subjects, and since I am thus part of the culture under study, my ethnography is necessarily subjective and also influenced by my personal sense of style. Even so, for me it remained difficult to pinpoint the ‘essence’ of this ‘subculture’ that I thought I knew so well.

It’s fantastic

It’s Sunday around midnight, and I have made my way over to the Leidseplein. I try to find a spot to park my bike but the street is packed with all sorts of people. I see a lot of tourists, with their big camera’s and even bigger coats. From a distance I can see a big line at Chicago Social Club forming. I lock my bike and make my way over to Jimmy Woo. There must be at least 30 people standing in line to go to tonight’s party: Fantastic. I hear everyone talking and laughing, and every time someone new joins the cue all heads turn for a friendly hello or a quick chat. There is a nice relaxed feeling in the air as everyone waits patiently to get inside.

The hostess at the door is dressed in a long vintage coat, Dr. Martens and her purple hair is put back in a top knot. There is this coolness about her clothing, so effortless but looking at her perfectly done make-up I’m sure it took her some time to get ready. I’m finally inside, and I’m standing in line again, this time to drop off my coat. I’ve decided to come an hour earlier than my friends so I won’t be distracted in my observations. I start to regret that decision, I feel a little awkward just by myself, especially since everyone seems to know everyone. I drop off my coat and walk into the club. It’s extremely crowded and downstairs won’t open for another hour. I directly head over to the bar, so it won’t be weird that I’m just standing there. While in line, again, I finally get the chance to take a look around.

It is packed with people dancing, chatting and laughing. I see a lot of people head over from one table to another, making a quick chat and moving on. Right next to me two girls dressed in high-waisted cut-off jeans and crop tops are talking about the party they went to last night. The bartender, who’s wearing black skinny jeans with All-Stars and a colourful vintage blouse, takes a quick break to pull his semi-long hair back into a knot. After getting my drink, I head over to the smokers lounge. Almost all the girls I’ve seen so far have an exposed belly and are wearing a crazy print. I also see a lot of army jackets, outrageous tights, colourful hair and lots and lots of denim. As I walk back into the club, I see one of my friends coming in. He hasn’t seen me yet and is looking around. When he walks over he stops about six times to make a quick chat with someone else, he apparently knows a lot of people here. I’m happy someone is keeping me company to be honest. He introduces me to a number of people, I make a quick chat but it’s mostly small talk. None of them seem genuinely interested and they soon turn around to go back to their prior conversation. In the meantime most of my friends have arrived. I’m glad they are here and we head downstairs to the dance floor. After some dance moves I decide to go home since it’s technically already Monday. While waiting for my coat I grab some fliers to see what else is going on this week.

Communicating (non)mainstream identity

Looking at the concept of ‘subculture’, the ‘sub’ describes distinctiveness and difference from the popular or mainstream society. The notion of an ‘authentic’ subculture depends on the idea of an ‘inauthentic’ mainstream or dominant culture (Barker, 2000). However, the distinction between mainstream and non-mainstream is becoming more and more vague since new technologies increase the subculture’s visibility to the outside world.

Since most subcultures arise out of resistance—or rather, oppositionality (Bucholtz, 2002)—to the mainstream, it is important to understand the concept of the mainstream itself. The mainstream is constituted through processes of legitimization, in which theorist Lyotard (1984) distinguishes meta-narratives and grand narratives. These narratives constitute a hegemonic structure of society and regulate what is perceived as the truth. In postmodern society this regulation increasingly occurs through consumption. In order to show one’s identity to the outside world, consumer goods are adapted to display certain functions of an individual’s identity. Likewise, subcultures have used fashion as a language to differentiate themselves from mainstream society. Paradoxically, this purpose of non-conformity with mainstream society is similar in all subcultures. This also makes it hard to create an individual identity within the identity of the subculture.

Within both mainstream society and subcultures, taste is an important signifier of identity. ‘Taste is the system of practice through which individuals classify themselves by their… classification of consumer goods as more or less desirable, acceptable or valuable’ (Zukin & Maguire, 2004: 183). By expressing one’s taste through clothing and music, signals about identity and conformity are transmitted to the public. Taste can also be used to understand others through social categories. The physical expression of taste, through consuming goods, can function as an heuristic tool to get around these social categories. Consumption can communicate group affiliation, giving similar individuals the chance to ‘converge together’ or dissimilar individuals the opportunity to diverge in order to ‘avoid signaling undesired characteristics’. Due to its instant visibility, clothing in particular can be used as a cue to communicate group affiliation and status. It can also communicate messages about personality (Berger & Heath, 2007). Decisions about clothing can act in two different ways: to display conformity within a social group, and to differentiate oneself from other, less desirable groups.

Bourdieu’s (1984) concept of ‘cultural capital’ is also relevant to understand these processes of group affiliation and distinction. Cultural capital can be described as the cultural tools that exist in society in order to shape the social organization. These tools find their feeding ground in actions such as social support and participation. Important elements of cultural capital are the qualities of social relations, memberships, shared norms and values and dedication to the social group. Cultural capital consists of different symbolic values that inform identity. In many subcultures fashion and accessories are used to communicate specific codes of Bourdieu’s cultural capital.

Yet this is where the hipster culture differentiates itself from other subcultures. While the logic of consumption, taste and cultural capital informs identity processes in all subcultures, in the case of ‘hipsters’ the purpose of differentiating oneself from the mainstream is not so much achieved through conformity with the subcultural group identity. Rather, it is achieved by emphasizing unique identity and individuality. In the following discussion, therefore, I will also emphasize the individuality of my interviewees.

‘I’m like a clothes whisperer’

Through fashion and style, people are able to emphasize and express their individual identity and present oneself to the outside world. But for some the meaning of style holds more significance than for others. For my interviewees—a 22-year-old female styling assistant, a 22-year-old male PR & Events student, and a 23-year-old female Fashion Academy student—clothes are not just clothes, but profoundly represent who they are.

‘Clothing has a lot of meaning to me, not just because I think it is really interesting, but it is also my job. I work as a styling assistant, so I work a lot with clothing and the meaning of everything involved. Every piece of clothing has a meaning and as a stylist you try to work with that. You try to create a look that says something by combining different pieces of clothing. It is almost like a secret language. And I am like a clothes whisperer instead of a dog whisperer, haha. To me it is my business card. You explain who you are, what you do, how you feel and what you know about fashion.’

‘I really love fashion, it is my shield, my second skin. I emphasize my identity and it makes me feel more confident.’ 

‘You have to present yourself to the outside world as someone who can do something. Clothing helps with that, especially when you go to a job interview or something. They might not like it but when I see someone who looks different, I think to myself, he or she has guts. You just have to wear what makes you feel comfortable, be who you are. For one person clothing might be just clothing, but for me it expresses things. Perhaps it manifests in clothing but it’s way more than that.’

For all my interviewees, moreover, different pieces of clothing and accessories hold different meanings. It is the carefully crafted ensemble that expresses ‘who you are’ and that makes it authentic and unique.

Authenticity and difference

Authenticity: being genuine, and true to internal ideas rather than external ones. An important aspect of subcultural identity is authenticity. ‘The authenticity of appearance is immediately linked with the self, and the body becomes the site of identity and authenticity’(Jenβ, 2004). In subcultural styles and fashion a distinction is usually made between the authentic and the inauthentic. In addition, for ‘authentic’ fashion lovers like my interviewees, perhaps the more important distinction is between those who dress as a form of self-expression and those who dress in order to belong (conformity). In the so-called hipster culture, persons, actions or events that show these qualities of authenticity are perceived as more valuable than others. Being authentic is something that is considered to be an innate characteristic of a person, and not something that can be achieved through acknowledgement from others. Therefore, ‘not caring’ about acknowledgment is an important element of ‘hipster’ identity.

‘Honestly, I like something better when it is not something that everyone wears. I like distinguishing myself so I try to outrun the constant change of what is ‘hot’. I stick with my own style. I would never wear something that might be ‘hot’ but that doesn’t suit me. If I really like something I would wear it even if others were wearing it too. Mostly it is just a consideration.’

‘The constant change of what is ‘hot’ and what is not definitely influences my decisions. Especially if something is absorbed by society it usually loses my interest. It makes me feel like I am not an individual anymore. Fashion has, besides aesthetics, everything to do with emotions. On the other hand, when something really suits me, I don’t care if the entire world is wearing it. I don’t want to worry about it constantly, because it doesn’t matter how bad you want to look different, you will always be labelled.’

Different: way or state in which people or things are not the same. This quality can only be obtained in relation to an opposition. ‘Hipsters’ might identify themselves as different in relation to society, which is perceived as normal. Being different can be understood as a way for an individual to distance oneself from everything predictable and conventional. But when difference becomes a desirable condition others will imitate it. This results in a shift from unpredictable to predictable and the difference becomes available to the outside world.

In everything we do the element of risk is present. In this case risk is the possibility of losing value. Authenticity and difference are very important within the hipster culture. Achievement of these two values is acquired through acts of exchange and interaction. These values are dependent on recognition. The risk is not that expressions cease to be viewed as authentic or different, but that the expressions become meaningless in the absence of an opposition to what is not. After all, difference can only exist in opposition to what is not. Therefore the opposition needs to be maintained.

‘We are part of western culture with our own ethics. Within this western culture there are so many subcultures that are subject to fashion. I think that my education and this city influenced my style. Anyhow you buy things that are available, so you will never be completely different, even if you want to be. Regardless, I don’t think I belong to the mainstream people, the simple Dutch citizens. I don’t feel that way at all.’  

‘Things that are just a little bit different. Just a little bit crazy that makes people think: I would never wear that. That’s what I want. I think everyone should look just the way they want too.’

When you’re in fashion, it means you have access to certain information, such that you know the appropriate social meaning of an object or the right behaviour at the right time. Because being in fashion means being ahead of the ‘crowd’, you will be perceived as an innovator instead of a follower. This allows individuals to propagate difference; if everyone followed the same trends at the same time, there wouldn’t be such a thing as difference. To stay ahead of the ‘crowd’ in our current information landscape an individual must ‘run harder to keep in the same place’.

Authenticity and difference are often associated with ‘being cool’. For ‘hipsters’, cool is characterized by a strong feeling of individuality. When a person is able to combine difference and authenticity, cool is successfully constructed. Distinguishing oneself and being different is thus highly appreciated and others want a part of that identity. But can difference be acquired, such as by imitation, or is it perceived as a natural characteristic of a person? This question strikes the core of the idea of authenticity: difference must be part of ‘who you are’ and reflect ‘your true self’.

Outside in, inside out

Hipster culture is about being an insider in outsider identity. When explaining the outsider role it is important to take a look at the concept of deviance. Simply, deviance means something that is different from something else. ‘Deviants are not like us, they behave differently’ (Clinard & Meier, 1992). In every social group or culture a number of rules and norms are expected. Through interaction of these rules deviance is formed. Individuals within a social group who choose not to follow these rules are labelled as outsiders (Becker, 1963).

My interviewees and many other participants I spoke to strongly identify with the outsider role. In most cases, they started feeling like an outsider from a young age, growing up in an environment that was mostly mainstream. After moving to Amsterdam they found others to share their ideas with; their difference was accepted by a community.

‘In elementary school, from a young age, I always knew exactly what I wanted. My mom never had to force clothing on me, because, no, I knew exactly what I did and didn’t like. On the other hand, I wasn’t always aware, I didn’t really care what I was wearing as long as it suited me. I loved vibrant colours, prints and everything girly. My mom still has a crazy style and she would buy me bags with cat artworks and beanies with cartoon figures. I absolutely loved that. In high school I still wore vibrant colours and prints, but my style became a bit more feminine and mature. Secretly I still loved crazy figures but I thought others couldn’t really appreciate that. I guess that’s part of being a teenager. I think everyone has their insecurities, mine was my love for different clothing. Back then I wasn’t so aware as I am now, it just came naturally.’

‘I thought that was cool, and in retrospect I think it’s probably good that I did that. I was the only one in school who looked like that, but I just thought I am going to do whatever I want. I am not going to look like everyone else is looking. At a certain point it became a bit more ‘normal’. I just looked a little plain, jeans and t-shirt. That was when I started to go shopping with my friends, they would buy things that everyone else bought. I just went with it.’

‘I grew up in a family where blue was considered to be a boy’s color and pink a girl’s color. That’s how my parents also dressed me until I was twelve years old. When my interest in fashion and clothing started to grow, I also started to dress myself. I tried to do this with caution, I didn’t want my parents to think I was weird, or others. So I kept it very simple and played it safe. Dark red pants were already a no-go. I remember people commenting when I wore those. At a certain point I started to try different things. My style became a little bit more alternative, very different from most boys in my class. I remember when I started to wear skinny jeans and everyone looked at me weird. Now everyone has at least one pair in their closets. When I moved to Amsterdam and had more freedom, I really started to dress the way I wanted too. I pushed my limits, which was okay. I learned from it and started to find my own style. Sometimes when I see pictures from two years ago, I think to myself: did I really wear that? But now it’s more stable and when I see pictures from last year I still like my outfit.’

The world they grew up in didn’t feel like their own world. They felt different from the majority of the people they hung out with, their friends in school or in their hometown. This is why they fit the profile of the outsider. After moving to the big city, they felt comfort with others who also felt like an outsider, which has resulted in feelings of belonging, comfort and security. By coming together they create their own little world, with its own behavioural codes, its own spaces, its own values etc. (Polsky, 1956). They see themselves in these likeminded others, with an equal preference for expressions of individuality and opposition to mainstream society. As individual teenagers they felt challenged by a mainstream society that frowns on the hip. Now, they feel as if their community is being challenged by a mainstream society that seeks to appropriate the hip.

The internet

Cool is based on the production of new, marginal inventions within groups requiring exclusive membership. These new inventions eventually become institutionalized as stylistic expression due to it being taken up by other members of the group. As a style it becomes recognizable to people outside the group as well, who imitate gestures and expressions in their pursuit of cool. The marginal group initializing invention feels betrayed when the boundaries of the group are breached. It is a universal complaint that hip ceases to be hip the moment it spreads beyond one’s own circle (Leland, 2004). However, cool or hip needs exposure, it needs to be attractive for a larger group. Something cannot be considered cool if no one is looking, if it cannot be performed. But it is not cool if too many are looking either.

Nowadays due to new technologies everything can be shared so fast and easily. When it comes to fashion, you can go online and see who wears, what, when. This makes it harder to stay ahead of the ‘crowd’ because something that is cool shifts to ‘uncool’ in no time. My interviewees also have mixed feelings about the spread of fashion through the internet:

‘The Internet is so widespread and you can share everything online. The newest trends from the other side of the world are for everyone to see with one click. I don’t necessarily think of it as something bad. People inspire each other and I like that. My friends inspire me too but that doesn’t mean I’m going to copycat them.’

‘I think the internet doesn’t do fashion any good. It’s so mainstream because it’s visible for everyone. This makes it harder to distinguish oneself, who really is fashionable and has their own style? It rapes the experience of fashion in my opinion.’

‘Sometimes it drives me crazy, I feel like my entire world is about fashion. I think to myself maybe I should become a caveman so I never have to worry about it anymore. I really think that sometimes, because it’s so dominating. All you can think about is I want this and this, and I don’t have this or that. You see so many things on the Internet, and everything changes so fast. If you just bought something new, two weeks later there is already something else. I don’t have to be the first all the time, but I don’t want to be last. I still want people to think: I haven’t seen that before. But that’s hard. With the internet everything is adopted so quickly.’

Conclusion

This paper has examined the use and meaning of style within the hipster culture. Style is an important aspect of this subculture to even exist as a social category because it is what makes their community visible to society. Through the use of style ‘hipsters’ have become recognizable as such. However, since fashion and style are subject to change those external characteristics of hipster culture constantly shift. In order to gain a better understanding and insight into this elusive subculture, the underlying dynamics of style were examined.

Through style people feel they can express themselves. It is a way to emphasize their identity and to present oneself to the outside world. Clothing has a meaning, it tells a story about who you are or who you want to be. This plays a crucial role in the hipster culture. Through clothing ‘hipsters’ are able to show their nonconformity with mainstream society. In this communication of style difference and authenticity play an important role. Distinguishing oneself from others while staying genuine and true to oneself is the key aspect of the performance of style. This is what makes a person either an ‘authentic hipster’ or just a poser. These qualities of authenticity and difference have to be innate characteristics of the person and cannot be acquired through acknowledgement from others.

People who are different and authentic often feel like an outsider. Others do not always understand their love for alternative clothing and accessories. Especially growing up in a small town or village feelings of alienation and incomprehension can occur. These feelings changed to a sense of freedom and belonging after moving to Amsterdam. By finding others to relate to a community is formed. The bond within the community gets stronger because they are being challenged by mainstream society. The outsider then becomes the insider.

With the rise of the Internet—which coincided, ironically, at around the same time as the rise of contemporary hipster culture—the hipster community faces challenges of maintaining difference. Due to the fast exchange of information online, the expressions of hipster culture become more visible sooner to mainstream society. Furthermore, the distinction between ‘authentic hipsters’ and posers has become increasingly unclear. Since everyone is able to adopt and adapt the visual characteristics differentiation is harder to achieve. This results in a smaller time period for the hipster culture to change its appearances in order to remain non-mainstream. They have to run harder to stay ahead of the pack.

Young people moving in hipster circles use performance of style to maintain subcultural distinction by changing the exterior dynamics of the hipster culture. Through constant shifts in style this subculture stays ahead of the pack. The time it takes for mainstream society to adopt those exterior characteristics is the time hipster culture has to evolve. This constant, rapid evolution of style is what makes it hard to identify this subculture for the ‘outside’ world. But also for me, as an ‘insider’, the boundaries of the subculture are still unclear. I also haven’t been able to answer the question that I have reflected on most throughout this research: am I a hipster? Yes, I love fashion and alternative style, yes I enjoy being deviant every now and then and rebel against mainstream society, but am I really a hipster? At this point it could go either way because hipsters are like ninjas, often invisible, mysterious and constantly on the run.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

Keesje Heldoorn is a Communication Science student, interested in art, fashion and traveling, currently doing a Master’s in Persuasive Communication.

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