What is a hipster? and what’s the story behind hipster fashion?

Authentic Hipster shirt

Have you ever seen a scruffily clad teen, 20-or 30-something wearing large, thick, black glasses (perhaps even without lenses!), possibly sporting a badge featuring nothing but a mysterious black mustache? Or perhaps you’ve noticed people who look like they’ve just stepped out of the 70s or 80s, wearing yesteryear t-shirts with images of old music bands and brands no longer familiar today. If you have, it’s possible you’ve spotted a hipster.

Hipsters can be identified by the way they dress, as described above, but these are external side-effects of their internal thinking. The true hipster is a hipster on the inside too.

What is a hipster?

The true hipster is, in a way, a descendent of the hippies. According to an African language scholar by the name of David Dalby, the word “hippie” may originate from the West African Wolof language word, “hipi” which means “to open your eyes” or “to become aware”. To “be hip” became synonymous with “being in the know”. This can be used to understand both hippies and hipsters: Both groups like to see themselves as open-eyed to aspects of society which other mainstream people don’t see.

With hippies, the thing they opened their eyes to was becoming aware of the importance of freedom from societal restrictions, and the need for peace, love, open sexuality, spirituality and equality. The very first hippies were white Americans in the 1940s who unlike most people in the States at the time, were open-eyed and more accepting of black people, thus earning them their “hippie” nickname by African Americans who were familiar with the Wolof language. Sometimes these white people would not only be accepting of black people, but would also adopt some of their cultural traits, developing an increasingly non-mainstream appearance in the then-conventional white society.

With hipsters, they can be defined by their “hipi” acute awareness to the unthinking conformity to the norm by the average person on the street, to a wide range of matters ranging from fashion to deeper and more philosophical things.  Questioning the former mainstream belief that “you have to look a certain way to be beautiful”, they wanted to “give geeks a chance”, supporting outright displays of geekiness, like the black-rimmed glasses. One article named hipsters the “assassins of cool”, although really it was not so much an assassination as an attempted re-definition of it. Part of their expression of non-conformity is seen through their purposeful rebellion in their choice of clothes, choice of music, movies, and hobbies which aim to be anything but what everyone else is “being fed” by the media without question. This accounts for the hipsters’ fondness for bringing back retro or vintage items and fishing around thrift shops.

Unlike their stereotypically easy-going, relaxed hippie predecessors however, some hipsters have become rather extreme in their reaction to convention. At their worst, such hipsters can take on a superior, mocking stance on the everyman, which, although not applicable to all hipsters, has tainted their reputation as a group. Being ironic and sarcastic at the expense of people who conform to what society dictates has become part of the hipster hallmark. People have in turn poked fun right back at hipsters for this, and various memes including “hipster Ariel”, “hipster kitty” and “hipster Hitler” have risen across the internet portraying people’s dislike of extremist hipster superiority.

The meaning of some of the emblems of hipster culture

1.) The hipster ironic mustache:

Black Mustache button

One of the iconic symbols used by the hipster subculture is that of a black handlebar mustache. The idea is that the mustache represents the epitome of a neat, immaculately-groomed individual as defined by conventional society (albeit one from the history books!). By wearing a picture of this highly-manicured mustache together with their usually casual, often purposefully-unkempt-looking attire, the mustache takes on an ironic appearance as the only neat thing on them. In a way, it is a direct mocking of society’s sometimes-ridiculous fads and fashions which people nonetheless follow unthinkingly.

2.) The Buddy Holly style / Wayfarer thick black glasses and retro clothes:

Nerdy Glasses Tote bag

It’s possible that the adoption of the thick black glasses is an example of transforming thought about things that were previously seen to be very “uncool” by conventional society, (something you perhaps got teased about), into something that’s so cool you’d wear it even if you don’t *need* glasses.

The same goes for the retro clothes which aren’t in fashion anymore.

3.) Hipster triangles:

Hipster Triangle shirt

Another iconic symbol of hipsters is the hipster triangle which can be seen adorning shirts and various accessories. Why do hipsters like triangles so much? This is under debate but possible reasons include:

  • That it’s possibly a resurfacing of old ideas about the spiritual power of the triangular shape,
  • Another theory is that the triangle is linked to the retro music that hipsters listen to because there is one band called YACHT, popular in hipster circles, whose symbol was a triangle.
  • Another theory is that the triangles are a symbol from the computer game called The Legend of Zelda, because like thick black glasses, a love of computer games was once not proudly announced to the world, but now in true hipster fashion, the uncool becomes cool and you can proudly display your computer geekiness to the world.
  • Triangles are considered as being a shape that can fit really well together to create all sorts of shapes and planes without any gaps, because a triangle is a tessellate shape. The key is that triangles fit in pretty much everywhere. By contrast, hipsters are purposefully detaching themselves from the mainstream smooth plane and trying not to fit into the “unthinking norms”. By sporting triangles, it is yet another ironic symbol of what they are not, rather than of what they are. Given the mindset of the hipster subculture I think this last theory is quite likely.

4.) Helvetica

Guy's Helvetica Shirt shirt

Hipsters are often associated with the font, Helvetica. I was unable to track an official reason for this but extrapolating from everything known about hipsters, it may be linked to the fact that like triangles, Helvetica font is very versatile, fits well more or less anywhere and is used a lot in mainstream society. For example, it’s seen in abundance on various signs around cities and it is the standard font used a lot in advertising. Hipsters may be wearing a shirt with the word “Helvetica” printed on it as a way of pointing out yet another thing that many people conform to in our society.

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The ultimate irony is that some people jump on the hipster bandwagon with their clothes, music snobbery and so on, just because it’s what their friends are doing, or because they saw it on a music video. Once hipster became cool, people began  conforming to hipster trends just to be seen as being cool. This completely  neutralizes the significance of the original “hipi” message.

My two cents worth on the hipster subculture:
I find the underlying message behind the hipster subculture to be quite admirable. Their encouragement for us all to look outside the narrow definition of “what’s good” as dictated by media-controlled mainstream-thought, can help to lead society in the direction of becoming more open and accepting of new, different or old, forgotten things. This could potentially give currently unseen things the limelight they deserve.

But when people begin to like non-mainstream stuff to the extreme, a problem arises. A prejudice is born where “mainstream = bad”. Suddenly it turns into an attack on people (even if the attack is only in the form of mockery and irony) just because they happen to like things that are in the current fashion. This hipster prejudice is not too dissimilar to that of those people who used to make fun of people who wore thick black-rimmed glasses in the past. It’s funny because this kind of prejudiced behavior is the very thing hipster culture was trying to fight against in the first place.

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One Response to What is a hipster? and what’s the story behind hipster fashion?

  1. Andrius says:

    Loved this article.. So mainly to define hipster people should ask about point of view about triangle and what are their thoughts about mainstream.. I started to love INDIE and know Yacht and I think they are main roots of a triangle which would explain about true nature of indie/hipster. Now about mainstream.. as long they are not acting as swag fags I think it’s cool to find people who likes the same stuff :) PEACE △

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