A Brief History of Hipsters, from Social Outcast to Urban Connoisseur
Here’s what you need to know about ‘rebel consumers,’ gentrification and why Americans hate the ‘hipster’ label
Indie musicians. Vagabonds. Corporate art aficionados.
Hipsters are complicated members of America’s more recent alternative movements, but not for the reasons non-hipsters might assume. The meaning of the word ‘hipster’ has changed over time. It’s quite humbling to realize that this influential rebel culture isn’t actually as revolutionary as so-called hipsters would like to believe.
Hipsters can be both incredibly progressive and scathingly insensitive to other cultures depending on how they express their style to others.
Hipsters are a sign of changing times.
But is this change necessarily a movement in the right direction?
Who Were the First Hipsters?
First thing’s first: hipsters aren’t hippies. They aren’t members of the 1950s Beat Generation and they may or may not follow a bohemian lifestyle. Hipsters are often (but not always) white young urbanites. The meaning of the word ‘hipster’ changed during the 1950s and again during the turn of the 21st century.¹
Some cultural scholars believe that the term ‘hipster’ originates from 1950s African-American jazz culture. In the midst of Harlem’s rising cultural Renaissance, white thrill-seekers would frequent bars and music venues in traditionally black neighborhoods because it was hip, trendy and new. Nowhere else could couples dance like they did in Harlem.²
A ‘hepcat’ was someone who others came to for answers.³ He was cosmopolitan and suave; he understood jive and was a powerful figure in the jazz world. It didn’t take long however for the word ‘hep’ or ‘hip’ to move out of Harlem slang and into wider use. But as traditionally Black communities saw more outsiders flood their bars and music venues, critics argued that these newcomers were taking advantage of their culture. Soon white swing musicians, who drew inspiration from their Black jazz counterparts, began to draw audiences away from Harlem clubs.²
The word ‘hipster’ had yet to gain traction in America until the late 1900s. But from the very beginning of its use, hipster-ism has flirted with problematic cultural appropriation and changing cultural norms.
Hipsters pursue novel ideas, which can lead to innovative business models and prosocial behaviors. But members of this counterculture can also hurt neighbors with their reckless, no-bounds behavior.
Clearly, hipsters are more complicated than they first appear.
Old-School Hipsters (Pre-2000s)
Before the turn of the twenty-first century, hipsters joined an array of alternative lifestyle groups who resisted over-commodification and over-objectification of modern men.
Taking after the Beat and hippie generations that came before them, early lower-middle-class hipsters believed in recreational drug use and free love. Hipsters pursued eastern philosophy and soulful arts experimentation. They drew inspiration from the Romantics of 19th century Europe, who used socialism, feminism and anti-establishment ideas to build a more “liberal, tolerant, and egalitarian society.” Early hipsters resisted capitalism and instead turned their attention to artistic expression and philosophy. These tools would help turn-of-the-century hipsters discover the meaning of existence and fix the mistakes of their parents’ generation.⁴
This generation of hipsters scorned both traditional marriage and outdated publications like Playboy Magazine, which told readers that they would only be happy when they gained enough wealth to show off their value to others. Instead of accumulating wealth, turn-of-the-century hipsters sought to unite a new class of tattoo artists and revolutionary thinkers.⁴
But hipster ideas were hardly revolutionary. Many hipster notions came from previous alternative and African-American cultures. Hipster expert Mark Grief explains that these early hipsters formed “a white avant-garde that wanted to disaffiliate itself from whiteness, with its stain of Eisenhower, the bomb, and the corporation, and achieve the ‘cool’ knowledge and exoticized energy, lust, and violence of Black Americans” — all without sharing culture with said Black communities.¹
This shaky foundation didn’t last long. At the turn of the century, old-school hipsters were losing traction. Another hipster would be ready to take their place.
Green Hipsters (Post-2000s)
Today, no one wants to be called a hipster
The turn of the century brought about tremendous uproar. The fall of the Twin Towers and the rise of the internet era signaled a huge shift in status quo, which also signaled a shift in what it meant to be ‘hip’ in a changing America. Grief suggests that the combination of the1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, degradation of the natural world and the Iraq invasion all contributed to cultural changes that left Millennials and members of Generation Z disenchanted with their new millennium. This disenchantment changed the way Americans interacted with economic elites. It also changed the way young Americans expressed themselves in a stronger-than-ever consumer culture.¹
Just as the generation before had done, these new hipsters sought to set themselves apart from the destruction of their parent’s and grandparents’ generations. Gripped with a passion for purchasing environmentally-friendly products and celebrating visual arts, these new ‘green hipsters’ also came from a wealthier background than did their predecessors.¹
Companies took note of this.
Advertisers soon modified their approach to sell hip goods to this changing market of image-conscious consumers. Coffee chains produced organic, fair trade product lines. Celebrities sported man buns and lumberjack beards. Forever 21 brought out insensitive new lines of Navajo-inspired underwear — because apparently, Native-American knockoffs were a sign of changing times. Thrift stores experienced a resurgence of traffic. Brands like Patagonia catered to the green hipster, offering eco-conscious clothing choices in stores across the US.
Businesses needed to prove to this new generation of hipsters that their products would make the consumer more artsy and woke.
And because of this, something curious happened. Advertising campaigns began to cater to American youth by building a narrative around the clothing and items they sold. Companies framed purchasing their items as a test of courage or an act of rebellion.
Think of it this way: green hipsters will pay more for a product that is sleek and functional. Many green hipsters also want to make sure that the companies they support treat workers fairly. They ensure that the fibers used in clothing are grown sustainably, and that the product’s carbon footprint isn’t outrageously huge. All this is fine and admirable, but there’s a catch.
Advertising and social media campaigns targeting green hipsters sought to make consumers believe that they weren’t supposed to have these items. Companies persuaded consumers to think that their purchase constituted an act of rebellion against ‘the system’ or some other unseen force. American Historian Thomas Frank fittingly dubs green hipsters swayed by this often deceptive marketing tactic ‘rebel consumers.’ ¹ Frank and other social historians argue that this preoccupation with conspicuous consumption isn’t novel or rebellious at all. In fact, your product preferences are quite predictable, as they correspond very closely with your social class.⁵
Writer Dale Beran argues that this advertising tactic only works to confuse hipsters, first-adopters, and would-be-revolutionary college students studying public policy or the liberal arts. He maintains that every generation from 1800s France to the modern era encounters its own handful of young subversives who want to change the existing social order.⁴
Sometimes, as in 1793 France, that change involves sending a deposed monarch to the guillotine. More recently, rapid change involves marches, protests, and social media slacktivism. But by confusing young protesters and leading them to believe that they can discharge some of their pent-up energy on hipster clothes or craft beers, Beran argues that social elites manage to keep the would-be rebels in line.
This is not to say that hipsters don’t understand the gravity of inequality, or that hipsters can’t simultaneously pursue materialistic and idealistic goals. For example, Americans attend annual Pride marches because these events are both exciting and politically engaging. But the image of the poser-hipster harms bonafide activists, who may find it difficult to shake the ‘hipster’ label and gain credibility in the public eye.
“The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual — the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist … the starving artist or graduate student — who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”
— Dale Beran
Even though ‘hipsters’ are usually white, young, and affluent, the flexible term describes many young Americans from different social groups today.¹ Hipsters rise from all backgrounds and social classes, which sometimes makes it difficult to tell where the ‘trendy’ part of town ends and where the real lower-income areas begin. Writer Dale Beran argues that this shared identity can sometimes get confusing at his local bar, which sits across from a city laundromat.
Wealthy and not-so-wealthy hipsters trickle out of the bar. They patronize the laundromat and blur the lines between elite and struggling artists. Some extremely wealthy metropolitans even use their inheritance money to pursue careers in art, making it extremely difficult for scrappy middle-class artists to find their footing in the competitive city. Hipster-ism turns the idea of the ‘struggling creative’ on its head. Anyone can be an artist, a vagabond or an influencer — so long as they have the right kind of money. This makes it even more difficult to tell whose personal brand is genuine, and whose merely seeks to seem #authentic.⁴
Hipper-Than-Thou: When Hipster-ism Hurts
One especially pernicious strain of modern hipster-ism includes “hipster racism,” the idea that it’s totally fine to speak or act in a way that marginalizes others — no offense.⁶
Hipster racism or hipster sexism might take the form of a hurtful comment framed as a joke (because the speaker is in-the-know, he realizes that it’s not okay to say something racist or sexist and mean it.)⁷ Hipster racism might also include an entirely-serious disregard for racial customs. One example of this occurs when white ‘trendsetters’ sport culturally-appropriated dreadlocks without taking into account the long history of this hairstyle choice. Often, hipster racists don’t look cool or stylish. Instead, they appear insensitive and uninformed.
Another way that careless hipsters hurt marginalized communities is by participating in the process of gentrification. A complicated issue, gentrification pushes residents out of their communities when popular new businesses lead to rising rent. Hipsters are especially problematic in urban arts districts. When affluent hipsters move into formerly low-income artist lofts, this forces the actual artists out of their apartments. Since they can no longer afford rent in that part of town, the artists move somewhere cheaper, and the process repeats.
The arts district retains its former ‘artsy’ vibe even when the artists-in-residence leave. After all, that’s why businesses chose to set up shop in the first place, and good business is sometimes pernicious. Landlords use this artsy edge to sell renovated flats to individuals of the upper-middle class who want to seem artsy, but usually have corporate 9-to-5 industry jobs necessary to pay for these upscale apartments.⁴
This process is nothing new. But here’s the catch: these fledgling members of the middle or upper-middle class seek to form an identity around art, around “knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world.”⁵ Businesses cater to these connoisseurs, charging high prices for #authentic experiences. They prove their social worth by buying ‘rebellious’ products. They pay for shabby or appropriated designs because it fits with their overall image. Hipsters settling in urban arts districts prove their worth by adopting an artsy persona — sometimes without creating any art at all.
Hip and Happening
Mark Grief posits that the American hipster is dead, and has been for a long time.¹ But hipster-ism still contributes to disillusionment and commercial distraction today. But all is not lost. And as a collective of early adopters, hipsters also are usually the first to come up with sustainable and innovative business solutions.
Hipsters, for the record, aren’t all bad. In some places in the United States and Europe, hipster culture is the norm. The Northwestern United States — known to outsiders as the home of Starbucks and liberal environmentalism — is a destination for many of the nation’s radical hipsters. Vancouver, Washington scored the top spot on Movehub’s study of the most hipster city in the US. And that’s great because there should be communities for everyone.
Avant-garde ideas don’t necessarily have to lead to hipster disillusionment. And conspicuous consumption doesn’t have to be all bad. For example in Seattle, Washington entrepreneur and Order of the Good Death advocate Katrina Spade is working to create better burial experiences for families in a unique manner. An alternative to burying families’ loved ones in cramped graveyards, Recompose offers consumers unique mortuary services that safely and respectfully turns human remains into soil, which can then be used in on-site memorial-gardens.
Opponents to this new process might call Recompose ‘hipster’ — but in reality, Spade’s process is environmentally and economically sound. Unconventional ideas help produce new solutions to modern problems. Policymakers and corporations should encourage similar out-of-the-box thinking as we move toward a culture that is less concerned with how we look and more concerned with a sustainable, equitable future.
In a similar vein, ‘hipster’ arts appreciation doesn’t have to lead to gentrification or disenfranchisement of low-income communities. Los Angeles does have a gentrified arts district, but the city also offers programs for up-and-coming creatives to receive funding for murals and burgeoning artists-in-residence. It might be possible for both local arts communities and #authentic shopping districts to exist in harmony, at least for the time being.
Understanding Hipster History Helps Us Grow
The term ‘hipster’ is flexible. It’s ever-changing, just as the styles and motivations of previous alternative movements — the hepcats, hippies, and members of the Beat culture influenced the modern hipster today.
Hipster racism and hipster sexism are not acceptable in the modern world, and Americans must work to fix its tricky history to stop cultural appropriation and harassment wherever it occurs.
Hipster-ism is important; if we don’t keep track of how businesses and real estate companies market to young professionals and would-be rebels in search of unique ‘artsy’ housing trends, we disenfranchise bonafide artists who must leave their gentrified neighborhoods in search of cheaper housing.
And hipsters can be incredibly powerful when initiatives like Recompose and the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture make it possible for avant-garde thinkers to ply their trade in an increasingly unconventional market.
So long as we hipsters aren’t hurting neighbors by keeping them awake with our incredible indie music or plotting to change the world with pointless ‘rebel consumerism’, please accept that we’re just trying to find ourselves in an increasingly hectic world. True, hipsters can both unwittingly cause harm and contribute to new ideas. But we also seek to correct the mistakes made by previous generations. For this reason, learning a little hipster history can go a long way.
 Greif, Mark. “What Was the Hipster? — New York Magazine — Nymag.” New York Magazine, New York Magazine, 22 Oct. 2010, nymag.com/news/features/69129/.
 Blakemore, Erin. “The ‘Hepster Dictionary’ Was the First Dictionary Written By an African American.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 1 Aug. 2017, www.history.com/news/the-hepster-dictionary-was-the-first-dictionary-written-by-an-african-american.
 Gandhi, Lakshmi. “Don’t You Dare Call Me A Hipster! I, Sir, Am A ‘Hep Cat’.” NPR, NPR, 8 Dec. 2013, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch /2013/12/06/249275784/dont-you-dare-call-me-a-hipster-i-sir-am-a-hep-cat.
 Beran, Dale. “A Tale of Two Hipsters.” Medium, 30 Aug. 2018, medium.com/s/story/a-tale-of-two-hipsters-5f6a9da9345c.
 Greif, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Nov. 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html.
 Reeve, Elspeth. “‘Girls’ Writer Is Learning There’s No Such Thing as Ironic Racism.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Oct. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2012/04/girls-writer-learning-theres-no-such-thing-ironic-racism/329126/.
 Quart, Alissa. “The Age of Hipster Sexism.” The Cut, The Cut, 30 Oct. 2012, www.thecut.com/2012/10/age-of-hipster-sexism.html.