Oh! You Pretty Things

Allison MacKenzie

n+1 has just published a book about the hipster phenomenon, its rise and fall, its innermost workings, and also its wretchedness. From American Apparel to Vicemagazine, from fans of Wes Anderson to those of the philosopher Zizek, from the neighbourhood of Williamsburg and Lower East Side cafés, to the Lima discotheques where the latest generation of posh folk dance the cumbia. No one is safe.

“What Was The Hipster?” has contributions from such respectable minds as DJ /rupture, Christian Lorentzen (the editor of the New York Observer who shot to fame for his article “Why the Hipster Must Die”) and Mark Greif, the founder of the magazine, a lefty intellectual educated at Yale, Oxford, and Harvard (an aside: since I saw “The Social Network”, every time I hear the word “Harvard” I can only think of the Porcellian Club and its muscular rowers, is that happening to anybody else?). Anyway, cutting to the chase, the book is very good. The title might throw you off, but make no mistake: it isn’t a treatise on style (although it also talks about Dov Charney’s pseudo-porno moustache), but rather it aspires to construct a sort of essay about the hipster phenomenon without eluding the macroeconomic, geopolitical, urban variants that gave birth to it. The time frame that it covers is a little over a decade, from 1999 to the present, giving rise to at least two questions. Is it possible to study a phenomenon while it is still occurring? And the second, which would provide material for a whole other essay: can any type of subculture really exist in a global, interconnected world when the network aborts (or, depending on how you look at it) fulfils the reasons why people are inclined to belong to one?

Anyway, dear readers, here are three or four things about hipsters that you might not have known until now:

1. One of the first people to use the word “hipster” was Norman Mailer, in his essay “The White Negro”, in which he almost mystically describes the young white people who discovered black culture in the 30s and 40s. They loved jazz and swing so much that they came to reject everything that smelled of WASP, creating an aura of secrecy around themselves: they were elusive and asocial, cultivating their own way of dressing, and they were the ones to make up the word “hippie”, a not-especially-affectionate diminutive used to define all of those second-rate imitators who spent the day high, dancing, and who had no idea of politics or poetry.

2. Today, hipsters would be (I’m quoting from memory) “a type of subculture generated by neo-liberalism” whose values “exalt political reaction disguised as rebellion under a façade of ‘vice’,” which is the “hipster” word par excellence. According to “What Was the Hipster”, hipster art practices “repetition, boasting of childhood, primitivism, and animal masks.” And its air of “anti-authoritarianism” calms all of those middle-class youths who, even rejecting all kinds of counterculture (whether it be punk, anti-capitalist, anarchist, or the 60s), continue to be in possession of the “cool factor provided by a subculture.” Said like that, it sounds brainy, but it is true: think of all of those groups with a harmless look with the name of an animal. Or of the unstoppable and worrisome expansion of the ukulele as an instrument of good vibes for the masses.3. Among the capital sins committed by hipsters in the last decade is that of gentrification. It’s no joke. The massive movement of twenty-somethings uniformed by Urban Outfitters without means in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side has generated a rise in rents and the cost of living that has ended up forcing out residents who’ve been there for decades, especially Hispanics and Jews (the orthodox community of Williamsburg has shown its head-on objection to American Apparel advertisements, probably the brand that has most benefited from the movement, and which at its peak went so far as to open 200 stores in a year). Each of you can establish a parallel with your own city and the neighbourhoods where prices per square metre have risen the most in the last decade. The same phenomenon has taken place in Europe.

4. Reading the book, one can’t help thinking that hipsters are rather silly. The place where they buy their clothes (American Apparel) and their Bible (the magazine Vice) give off the suspicious stink of sexism disguised as hormone-pumped rebellion. The chapter dedicated to Lima’s hipsters, for example, is highly illustrative: it explains how through Pitchfork and the super-cool Brooklyn label Barbès, Peruvian cumbia has come to be fashionable, thanks to the compilation “Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias for Peru”. Suddenly, this traditional Peruvian genre is being played in the coolest discotheques in Lima and all of Lima’s rich hipsters dance to it, vibrating with their indigenous roots. For Jace Clayton (DJ /rupture) this means that the majority of Peru's hipsters "have too much money and a neo-colonised brain” and that only when they see their culture passed through the official lens of modernity (ergo, a label with a New York headquarters) and it comes back to them packaged as something cool from the metropolis can they really appreciate it.

Conclusion: if you take hipster-ism as a factor for analysing the post-colonial problems of many countries, the result is always the same: the hipster phenomenon is “America-centric” and “very European”. Summing up: the birth of the phenomenon was in 1999, right when the first anti-globalisation movement began in Seattle and ecology began to be taken seriously. But it seems like the credo of hipsters lies in not taking anything too seriously, except for oneself. There’s a reason why their head philosopher is Slavoj Zizek, post-modern theoretician of popular culture (despite the Marxist, anti-bourgeois background of his discourse). And being a vegan doesn’t count when it comes to saving the planet. Irony + contemplating one’s own navel = zzzzz.5. How to know if you are a hipster in two minutes, according to the n+1 essay: Is “The Royal Tenenbaums” one of your favourite films? Do you wear Aviator glasses? Do you read Vice? Have you ever grown a moustache or some other type of body hair ironically? Do you have the last Johnny Cash albums produced by Rick Rubin? Those of Belle & Sebastian? Any tattoos? Are you a fan of Dave Eggers and of “Believer”? Do you consider yourself a “rebellious consumer”, and therefore more clever than average? Did you answer “yes” to more than four of these questions? Then you already know the answer. Don’t get too depressed. It’s never too late to try.

And now, a few bullets about what the fashion scene has had to offer in recent weeks.

The hype: Amy Winehouse’s collection for Fred Perry. Yes, Amy is alive, and has given her touch to a mini-collection for the brand. The result isn’t too surprising: a whole catalogue of basics (Capri pants, jackets, dresses with low-cut halter necklines) with a slight retro touch, following the 50s pin-up look she favours. Attention smaller-sized women: it seems that Amy has insisted on extending the sizes so that she herself can wear the collection. Inexplicably, at the presentation she did an Oasis cover. Later, she declared that she loves to dress “like an old, black Jew.” We’re looking forward to her third album.The hype that we’ll never get tired of: the H&M and Lanvin combo is any fashion maven’s wet dream. Only Galliano is still missing! What next? Prada? The bad thing: the colossal media attention attracted by this type of collaborations means that half of the planet recognises the dresses in the collection on sight—which aren’t exactly discreet, either. And nobody likes to walk into a party with a Lanvin for H&M dress and have everybody think to themselves: “Aha, somebody else who got one of the yellow Lanvin dresses that sold like hotcakes.” Or is somebody still wearing the peacock print Matthew Williamson dress?

The hype that we’ll never get tired of (2): Marc Jacobs has opened a book shop, in his untiring crusade to be the coolest designer on the face of the earth.

The big yikes: the freaky, ego-tripping turn that Anna Dello Russo is taking, more bigorexic every day, and with a style that makes Roberto Cavalli look like a minimalist monk. The editor of Japanese Vogue says that she feels like “Internet Barbie,” while she is preparing the launch of her perfume and announcing her documentary on her website. Too bling for the body.

The bad vibe: the ruckus raised by the simultaneous publication of two biographies (with the same photo on the cover) of the deceased style icon Isabella Blow, close friend to Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen, who she discovered and sent to the top from Tatler. One was written by Detmar Blow, Blow’s husband of the last two decades, and the other was written by Lauren Goldstein. The exchange of accusations, with Blow’s family members in the middle of it—let’s just say it is very sad. Isabella didn’t deserve this.The big news: in this column we are faithful defenders of the sometimes-misunderstood and highly-envied Tavi. We already told you about how our favourite blogger adores the magazine Sassy. Well, it seems that Tavi and its founder, Jane Pratt, have met, and they liked each other, so they are planning to launch a new teen magazine that will be heir to the non-conformist, rebellious spirit of Sassy. Three cheers for that.

The cover: the first issue of Industrie, the magazine about the culture of fashion, had Anna Wintour as a declaration of intentions on the cover. The contents were very interesting, well-documented and truly refreshing. We are anxiously waiting to get the second issue, which has a cross-dressing Marc Jacobs on the cover, in our hot little hands. As influential as he is, maybe even male thighs will become fashionable.

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