Hipster is one of those things that is impossible to define and yet instantly recognizable when you see it. A hipster bar is never described as such by its patrons, of course: The very word is unhip.
I was in one of these bars last weekend, in a downtown neighbourhood that is the perfect incubator for such fleetingly perfectly cool people, ground zero for the kind of anti-fashion and non-committal art that influences the pages of magazines around the world and will surface in Super Bowl ads a year from now, and I was struck by several things about hipster culture and aesthetics.
Hipster culture has been much described in the United States (particularly in a 2003 book called The Hipster Handbook). Its Canadian equivalent is almost identical, but perhaps a couple of years behind and with different slang and different centres. Its incubator is the same: Hipster bars develop in urban neighbourhoods in transition from impoverished to desirable. The locale must be far from any entertainment strip known to large numbers of suburbanites or grownups. A hipster bar must be founded by a well-known hipster: well-known bartenders, DJs or vintage-clothing-store owners, for example. This way, they don't have to rely on any expensive publicity, the way, say, a multilevel new dance club in the entertainment district does.
The promoters carry their clientele from place to place through word of mouth alone. (A massively funded corporation can hire all the cool hunters and focus groups it wants and it will still never be able to reproduce the desired crowd.) Ideally, a hipster bar has no identifying sign outside and minimal decor inside.
In this nurturing space, hipsters learn to dress. The current hipster uniform is designed to pass under the radar of the unobservant. Dressing in a consciously outrageous fashion - as was accepted in the days of punk rock, for example - is no longer acceptable.
The key to being among the most fashionable is to claim a total disdain of fashion. But there are certain rules, foremost among them extreme slenderness.
Even the hipster male must be skinny. Very skinny, in fact: spindly. The hipster male (and I admit I am more interested in male costume for professional reasons) then chooses clothes that accentuate this slenderness: extremely narrow yet loose jeans, a T-shirt that is slightly too small, a tight cardigan or V-neck sweater. In other words, the hipster male must look not at all like the steroided ideal of male desirability as portrayed in hip-hop videos. The hipster male has shaggy hair and a hint of androgyny. (He is also not squeaky clean: His hair has not been washed today and he certainly hasn't shaved.)
This look has been echoed by recent high-end runway fashion, in which most male models are waif-like. Right now, the aesthetic is the opposite of masculine ideals as seen in big popular dance clubs in the commercial districts, where it still helps to be robust and ripped. But look out, muscle boys of Richmond Street and Argyle Street and the Red Mile: The stick men are the vanguard of things to come for all of us.
The little sweaters - often in argyle - continue the theme of boyishness or asexuality: The guy with the sweep of hair hanging in his eyes with a schoolboy sweater looks above all sensitive. He also looks overheated, particularly in a dance club. The only flamboyance that the male hipster can show, besides his tousled haircut, is his knotted wool scarf and tuque, which may not be removed. It is astounding to see these guys dancing energetically in a sweaty crowd and steadfastly refusing to remove their scarves and hats; it must be hellish. Here is where the pretense of nonchalance disappears, for one must admit that such strictures - like Beau Brummell's injunctions to keep a perfectly stiff stock and elaborately knotted cravat in place at all times - are quite outlandish.
This brings up the question of irony, so long a central part of hipster culture. This particular group in the bar on the weekend was enjoying a mix of music that was contemporary and nostalgic: It combined recent electronic dance music with 1970s disco and soul. The DJ was from Brooklyn (far cooler of course than "New York City," an origin that DJs might have boasted of a few years ago; hipster culture is mad for all things Brooklyn, including art and literature).
I recognized to my amazement an easy-listening soul song that had been popular when I was trying to make out with Theresa in Cynthia's rec room in Grade 9. (It was Boz Scaggs's Lowdown, from 1976, and to hear it again now in that churning youthful environment was a Proustian shock, a curiously unpleasant mix of yearning and embarrassment.) This kind of music was violently disdained during my own hipster years; it was exactly what punk rock was reacting against. But the happy dancers here displayed no trace of ironic appreciation: They just loved it.
The word hipster itself was a few years ago ironic. It was funny because dated; it comes from the 1940s, from jazz. I'm not using it ironically myself, nor are the hipsters irony-obsessed any more. Irony has been so pervasive for so long that it has simply disappeared: We have come full circle into endearing sincerity.