Analysis of the Hipster Subculture

3724 words (15 pages) Essay in Sociology

18/05/20 Sociology Reference this

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Wherever there is an establishment, there will forever be an anti-establishment (Omar, 2016). You either join the mainstream culture or you refuse and rebel. This push-and-pull struggle of resistance or acceptance constructs culture within contemporary society as a relentless battlefield (Hall, 1981). As a result, Hebdige’s (2004) conceptualisation of ‘subcultures,’ as a subversion of normalcy, provides a provocative investigation into the avenues through which like-minded individuals, who feel disconnected from the dominant culture, form assemblages that participate in collective forms of resistance. Therefore, surfacing out of oppositionality to the mainstream, ‘subcultures’ consolidate their manifestation of difference through ‘expressive forms and rituals’ that culminate into the ‘construction of a style…a gesture of defiance or contempt, in a smile or a sneer’ (Hebdige, 2004: 1259). In exploring Hebdige’s ‘subcultures,’ this essay will critically examine the 21st century subculture of hipsters in formulating what they’re invested in, how individuals signal membership through the usage of ‘signs,’ what they’re ‘refusing’ and rebelling against, and relevant criticisms surrounding hipsters, analysed through the lens of Newtown in Sydney as the melting-pot of ‘authentic hipsters.’


Conceptualisation of hipsters and what they’re invested in

Largely encapsulating those in ‘Generation Y,’ 21st century hipster subculture is composed of youth and young adults living in gentrified locales (Maly & Varis, 2016: 638). Hipster subculture is primarily associated with ‘creatively-inclined’ individuals whom share an artisanal appreciation of alternative lifestyles, independent thinking and creativity, circumventing societal expectations through their ‘non-mainstream fashion sensibility’ and ‘adulation of esoteric cultural goods’ as the embodiment of a progressive ethical consumption philosophy (Hendlin et al., 2010: 214; Grief, 2010; Henke, 2013: 117). Essentially, hipsters’ distance themselves from anything mainstream, predictable and conventional as being an enlightened innovator rather than a follower, holding the tastes and attitudes considered ‘cool, by the cool’ (Lanham, 2008: 13). Despite this, the ‘everyday use’ of hipster is mobilised as a pejorative slur connoting ‘superficiality and self-absorption,’ pigeonholing hipsters as ‘smug’ and ‘pretentious’ (Henke, 2013: 118; Grief, 2010). However, these derogatory remarks are reserved for ‘fake’ hipsters as those with exorbitant economic capital who attempt to ‘buy’ cultural capital to acquire the hipster style as a ‘jockey for social gain’ motivated to produce a ‘fashionably rebellious image’ rather than embodying the hipster ethos of ‘genuine radicalism’ (Henke, 2013: 117; Schiermer, 2014: 169; Grief, 2010). As such, an ‘authentic’ hipster never admits to truly being a hipster as this label is earmarked for those who ‘desperately’ want to be ‘hip’ (Hendlin et al., 2010: 214; Maly & Varis, 2016: 646). The very notion of rejecting labels is an ‘essential ingredient’ of an ‘authentic’ hipster as an ‘innate characteristic,’ not something to be achieved through acknowledgement of others but by ‘being yourself’ as one doesn’t wear the ‘hipster style’ because they want to be one, rather, because ‘that’s how one is’ (Maly & Varis, 2016: 645-6).

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Furthermore, what is an ‘absolutely crucial’ investment in being a ‘true’ hipster is the claim to authenticity and uniqueness (Maly & Varis, 2016: 644-5). As ‘ambassadors of good taste,’ hipsters consume to project their authenticity as not being ‘like everybody else’ but fuelled by a ‘passion of all things creative, counter-cultural, underground and artesian’ as a ‘state of mind’ that keeps the non-corporate and independent, flourishing (Absurdistry, 2014). Thus, authenticity is linked to ‘telling the right kind of story’ as having an authentic reason’for your consumption practices, in prioritising ‘progressive social change’ through the appreciation of the creative, as it’s not just about wearing the ‘right’ clothes, but being engaged with the hipster identity in ‘seeking purity’ through consumption (Maly & Varis, 2016: 650; Henke, 2013: 129). Such that, hipsters are invested in conveying the ‘self’ in terms of non-conformity to mainstream culture, rejecting what is ‘socially acceptable and commonplace’ and thriving on being ‘quirky’ and ‘to the majority of society- fucking weird’ (Ehrlich & Bartz, 2010: 105). ‘Being real’ in formulating ‘coolness’ focuses on both the authenticity of one’s choices in staying genuine to hipster ethos, whilst distinguishing oneself from others in not being reducible to imitation, through uniqueness and individualisation, which paradoxically forms the collective hipster identity (Maly & Varis, 2016: 644). This is termed the hipster paradox as the ‘unspoken, yet practiced degree’ whereby hipsters must ‘all be individual…or membership may be revoked’ (Maly & Varis, 2016: 644). As such, authenticity and uniqueness become the ‘invisible ink’ for hipsters, as the ‘most telling signs of belonging,’ keeping distance between ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ hipsters (Eriksson & Grétarsdòttir, 2006: 37). Hence, hipsters are invested in ‘living independently’ and freely, crafting themselves away from ‘mundane norms’ and towards the ‘creative,’ the ‘organic’ and the ‘indie,’ conforming in their non-conformity (Absurdistry, 2014).

Moreover, despite some hipster indexicals having ‘global purchase’ this doesn’t mean that the hipster subculture is a ‘monocultural phenomena,’ but is polycentric and ‘translocal’ (Maly & Varis, 2016: 642). In exploring hipster’s localised nature, it’s pertinent to examine the ‘king of all hipster suburbs,’ Newtown (Grobler, 2019). Whilst McRobbie (1980: 111) and Halberstam (2003: 319-20) denote that the study of subcultures have ‘consistently’ presumed the ‘dominance of males’ through a ‘heterosexual framework,’ the hipster subculture in Newtown is much more inclusive, described as one of Australia’s largest ‘gaybourhoods’ and deemed the ‘lesbian capital’ accounting for 22.4% of female same-sex couples as a proportion of Australia’s capital cities (Campbell, 2015). Ranking ‘10/10’ for its ‘hipster vibe,’ underpinning Newtown’s hipster lifestyle is their strong investment on social progressivism as a ‘united outlook’ of hipsters’ political ideologies (Grobler, 2019). This involves an emphasis on social justice in fighting for equality for all, as well as environmental sustainability in conserving the sanctity of the environment in reducing our pollutive measures and human impacts on climate change. The importance placed on these values is reflected in the fact that the local MP for Newtown is Green’s member Jenny Leong, receiving the ‘highest ever vote for a Green’s MP,’ demonstrating the collective prominence of the hipster subculture permeating Newtown (Bacon, 2019). Similarly, this focus on naturality, quality and independence central to the hipster lifestyle in sourcing local organic produce is evident in the profusion of hipster infrastructure within Newtown with regular farmers markets, an abundance of vegetarian and vegan eateries, as well as independent coffeeshops and microbreweries like Young Henrys and Grifters, replacing the mass-produced objects that the mainstream consume. Moreover, as ‘Australia’s art mecca,’ Newtown fosters creativity and artistic expression of hipster subculture through the cornucopia of bric-a-brac stores, vintage and thrifty boutiques, bookstores, vinyl stores, art galleries, tattoo parlours, independent theatres and street-art murals (Grobler, 2019). As such, it’s clear that the hipster subculture has materialised within Newtown as a collective hangout, envisioning notions of unity among ‘authentic’ hipsters. Therefore, being an ‘authentic’ hipster entails not only acquiring the right ‘style’ through authenticity and uniqueness, but also being engaged in hipster ideologies of social progressivism, naturality, independence, creativity and artistic expression.

Signs used by hipsters

It’s through the expression of ‘style’ integral to youth identity formation, where subcultural identity becomes visible as a deviation from mainstream culture (Hebdige, 2004: 1259). Such that, hipsters are very conscious of how they present themselves, as their individualised clothing ‘style’ is the most evident ‘sign’ of belonging to this subculture, with their creativity setting them apart from the ‘inauthentic’ mainstream. In thinking through McRobbie’s (1980: 111-4) and Halberstam’s (2003: 320-3) drawbacks of subcultures’ heterosexual and male bias, the hipster ‘style’ celebrates all, bestowing itself in androgynous genderless flairs, as well as feminine and masculine characteristics regardless of gender or sexual preference. This search for authenticity and uniqueness for hipsters, ties into the practice of ‘bricolage’ of reusing past trends, testing ideas and mixing clothing creations, likened to a treasure hunt in searching for symbols of exclusivity (Eriksson & Grétarsdòttir, 2006: 30). Thus, hipster ‘style’ is defined principally through its ‘non-mainstream fashion sensibility’ surrounding the appreciation of all things ‘vintage,’ ‘dated,’ ‘retro,’ ‘old’ and ‘thrifty’ (Rasmussen et al., 2012: 18). Essentially, clothing is a ‘way of life’ for hipsters, exhibiting itself as a ‘fringe style’ that is often more artistic than practical (Rasmussen et al., 2012: 68). For Newtown hipsters this assembles into a profusion of retro band t-shirts accompanied with flannels, vintage paisley and plaid shirts, grandma sweaters, retro coats and vests, as well as gingham dresses, bell bottoms and high-waisted jeans sourced from a surfeit of vintage and thrift boutiques within Newtown like U-Turn, SWOP, Cream on King, Vinnies and the Red Cross. Despite the uniqueness in each individual attire, the style itself is ‘thoroughly ordered…whereby the chaos cohere(s) (into) a meaningful whole’ as the ‘marker’ that signifies membership (Hebdige, 2004: 1263). Such that, ‘true value’ for a hipster is measured in the clothing’s ‘provenance and patina’ as having a distinct ‘feel’ and ‘smell’ of originating from a different period, envisaging a sense of ‘scarcity’ as every clothing piece holds particular meaning (Eriksson & Grétarsdòttir, 2006: 37; Hebdige, 2004: 1262). As a result, the hipster makes a ‘conscious choice’ of clothing as a ‘visible construction, a loaded choice’ in bypassing societal norms, as a ‘sign’ that gestures the belief the wearer embodies (Hebdige, 2004: 1263; Rasmussen et al., 2012: 68).

Nonetheless, what Hebdige (2004: 1259-60) is truly concerned about is how ‘unremarkable’ and ‘mundane objects’ are made to ‘mean again’ as a source of subcultural value. Much like ‘bin-liners’ instrumentalised as a ‘sign’ of punk subculture, visualising a hipster in old-fashioned vintage like a ‘dated flannel’ signifies a sense of ‘material poverty’ and ‘deviation’ in the eyes of the mainstream, yet generates a ‘hidden’ message of authenticity, artistic expression and creativity when viewed within the subculture (Hebdige, 2004: 1259,1264). What indicates one thing, takes on an opposite ‘symbolic dimension’ for hipsters, becoming a form of ‘stigmata’ as a symbol of ‘self-imposed exile’ as a means of rebelling by creating ‘disgust’ and ‘controversy’ (Rasmussen et al., 2012: 57; Hebdige, 2004: 1259). Moreover, like punks assembling ‘safety pins’ and ‘lavatory chains’ into ‘signs’ of ‘forbidden’ identity, Newtown hipsters utilise old fabrics like towels and blankets from vintage and thrift shops and re-appropriate them into wearable garments like shawls and headbands as an indicator of defiance, an expression in code to stick-out from our mainstream, mass-produced, un-individualised society (Hebdige, 2004: 1259; Maly & Varis, 2016: 646-8). Additionally, miscellaneous items like shoelaces, cords and buttons (Newtown’s All Buttons Great and Small) are sourced for bracelets and necklaces within hipster subculture as an embodiment of hipster identity that warns the ‘straight’ world of the ‘presence of difference’ (Hebdige, 2004: 1259). As such, these ‘humble’ objects with double meaning are ‘stolen’ and re-appropriated within hipster subculture as a ‘secret’ connotation that communicates their collective identity as non-conformists to mainstream culture (Hebdige, 1979: 18).

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Equally as important in expressing deviance is one’s hairstyle, viewed as a radical marker of hipster subculture. Much like punk’s penchant for dyed hair, the ‘abnormal is valued intrinsically’ for hipsters as one’s hairstyle is viewed as a ‘eye-catching masterpiece’ adapting and borrowing ‘classy…ancient…vintage hairstyles,’ as a variation of ‘androgynous’ styles throughout time (Hebdige, 2004: 1260; Rasmussen et al., 2012: 19-23). Some notable Newtown hipster hairstyles include an immersion of ‘Elvis inspired’ haircuts from early rock culture, pompadour, mullets and topknots from ancient France, Greece and Japan, as well as braided mohawks, side-swept bangs and pixie cuts from early feminist movements (Malady, 2013). For male hipsters, this extends to facial hair as having ‘full scraggly beards’ or ‘handlebar’ moustaches as symbolic of the wild-west and medieval times emulating a rustic and eccentric ambiance viewed as an overt marker of peculiarity (Malady, 2013). Similarly, the popularity of traditional ‘American-styled’ tattoos like ‘kitschy sailor-styles’ and ‘vintage pin-up girls’ that line flash sheets in Newtown tattoo parlours, have been re-appropriated as a visible construction of hipster identity, mobilised as a source of value and ‘casual decoration’ that creates distance between hipsters and the mainstream (Bidisha, 2014). Additionally, esoteric vintage objects like type-writers, Walkmans, low-fidelity cameras and vinyl records as symbols of ‘nostalgic taste’ are transformed into signifiers of hipster lifestyle, reflecting their values surrounding authenticity, artistic expression and uniqueness, as an extension of a non-conformist philosophy that deviates from societal norms and mass-consumerism (Henke, 2013: 117-20). Thus, being recognised as an ‘authentic’ hipster requires assembling the ‘right kinds’ of identity indexicals that embody hipster ideals, through the investment of time and labour in bestowing status and prestige on its owner, as the accretion of what Thornton (1995) terms ‘subcultural capital.’ Ultimately, this involves ‘being in the know’ as ‘hipness’ must come as ‘second nature,’ whereby one mustn’t try ‘too hard’ to fit in by over-using hipster ‘signs,’ as being a hipster isn’t a ‘ready-to-wear’ subculture (Thornton, 1995: 27-8).

What hipsters are refusing

The crux of subcultures is to collectively unite those who share values distinct to the mainstream (Hebdige, 2004: 1259). As such, Hipsters arose out of resistance to the ‘homogenising forces’ surrounding our dominant, Western, capitalist society that values the maximisation of profit through mass-consumerism (Eriksson & Grétarsdòttir, 2006: 8-11,23). Challenging the hegemony of the dominant culture is ‘expressed obliquely’ through ‘style’ as the ‘external image’ that makes up hipster identity is purely a replication of the member’s internal thoughts, as the yearning to express attitudes removed from mainstream demands (Hebdige, 1979: 17; Heldoorn, 2014). As the absorption of an ‘anti-authoritarian,’ ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘counter-cultural ethos,’ hipsters have an avid disdain for modern corporatism and mass-consumerism that fuels our capitalist society (Henke, 2013: 120-1). Hipsters, as ‘stubborn non-conformists,’ strive to be distinctive, not wanting to associate themselves with the ‘herd’ of consumers ‘brainwashed’ by corporations to buy the same pre-packaged products, reflective of our ‘throw-away’ consumeristic society (Omar, 2016). Such that, hipsters ‘refuse’ to succumb to dominant ideologies surrounding consumer culture, as commodities lose their ‘story’ when they become uniform and mass-produced (Eriksson & Grétarsdòttir, 2006: 34-8). This is why hipsters selectively focus on ‘re-tooling’ counter-cultural objects that are ‘independently or alternatively produced’ as a rebellion against the established mainstream that prioritises ‘mass-produced, heavily-marketed, and poorly crafted’ commodities. (Henke, 2013: 122). Thus, hipsters, as ‘culturally sensitive’ and ‘conscious’ consumers that track the ethical layers beneath their products, have a disdain for the ‘culturally-ignorant attitudes’ of conventional ‘soul-less, everyday’ consumption (Maly & Varis, 2016: 639). Likewise, in showcasing their socially and environmentally progressive philosophies, Newtown hipsters refuse to conform to the supremacy of the conservative institutions we live under. Therefore, the hipster identity represents a repudiation to follow the dominant culture, as a romanticised escape from the societal norms of Western consumer culture, capitalism and conservativity.


Due to the global popularity of the hipster aesthetic through the rise of technology and consumerism, hipsters are left open to relentless scrutinization from those (Johnson, Schiermer, Heldoorn) who believe the subculture to be consumed by the mainstream. For Schiermer (2014: 177) hipsters are more-so fashioned as an arbitrary, transient aesthetic as the boundaries between ‘authentic’ hipsters and the mainstream ‘manufactured’ imitators continue to blur. As a result, Johnson (2016) and Heldoorn (2014) view hipster subculture as being overhauled, deprived of its distinctiveness and mass-produced for all, as corporations like H&M are transitioning towards clothing that fits the hipster palette. This criticism draws comparisons with Bennett’s (1999: 599-603) concept of ‘neo-tribes,’ which views subcultural groupings as ‘deeply problematic,’ better understood as a sequence of ‘temporal gatherings’ characterised by ‘fluid boundaries and floating memberships.’ However, those who criticise the legitimacy of hipster subculture ostensibly focus on the superficiality of clothing; which, I submit might be becoming more mainstream, but is only increasing ‘fake’ hipsters whom are doing it for the face-value appeal, without believing in hipster ethos. As discussed, the product of hipster ‘style’ is to reflect the internalised ideologies of the subculture, in rebelling against mainstream culture, whilst fostering ideals of social and environmental progressivism, authenticity and uniqueness. As an ‘authentic’ hipster acquiring such a ‘style’ isn’t bought like the critics suggest but comes naturally in sharing the collective ideologies that spark belonging within the subculture, evident within Newtown as a thriving example of hipster’s survival as an authentic subculture with well-defined ideologies progressing through time.



Throughout this analysis, I’ve examined the elusive nature of the contemporary hipster subculture. Through the lens of Newtown hipsters, I conceptualised the differences between ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ hipsters, what hipsters are invested in, the ‘signs’ they use, what they are ‘refusing’ and acknowledged pertinent criticisms. Like ‘graffiti on a prison wall,’ whilst aspects like ‘style’ mightn’t shift the status quo immediately, it highlights the significance of having flashes of resistance to foster power through collective unity to positively influence societal norms (Hebdige, 2004: 1259).

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