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Hipsters in crisis

What does it really mean to be a hipster?

By Margaret Thompson
On December 18, 2011

Rarely do you meet white-collar businessmen who mock their colleagues for wearing neckties; or wine connoisseurs with a deep disdain for vineyards; or Sunday school teachers who scoff at organized religion.

Yet find any bedraggled twenty-something coasting down Chicago's congested streets on a vintage Schwinn bicycle or trudging toward the "L" to the beat of the latest alternative rock anthem emanating from a pair of obtrusive headphones, and chances are, they will look at you insolently — through oversized eyewear — and denounce any association with the growing subculture known as hipsters.

When they do, notice not only the tone of resentment, but also the unseasonably warm wool jacket, the dilapidated scarf, the preponderance of plaid flannel, and the hand-rolled cigarette.

"To be a hipster is a cruel irony," says Justin Ghofrani, 21, a Columbia College student, amateur indie music producer and self-proclaimed expert on hipsters. "The only way to knock a true hipster's ego is to call him a hipster."

Ghofrani says that his savviness on the matter comes from spending three years surrounded by hipsters while attending Columbia, and from his friends, whom he calls his "hipster posse." Despite his familiarity with all things hipster, Ghofrani did not comment on whether or not he is a hipster himself.

"The social ambiguity of the hipster movement is part of what makes it so appealing," he said. "If I told you I was one, then I wouldn't be, right?"

Because admitting to be a hipster would mean adopting a socially constructed label, Ghofrani says hipsters must reject it on principle.

"It's all about being eclectic," he said. "But this becomes a paradox when five of your closest friends, your next-door neighbor, most of your classmates, and all of the employees at your local organic market also decide they're ‘eclectic.' What happened to the line between unique and trendy?"

DePaul University graduate Anna Burnham, 22, believes it has become hard to distinguish.

"Contemporary hipsters have whored the idea of uniqueness to the point that everyone has to question the authenticity of their tastes," she said, flicking her smoldering cigarette and tugging the flaps on her hand-knit wool hat down over her abundantly pierced ears. "My style and way of thinking reflect me, not a fad."

In his book, "What Was the Hipster: A Sociological Investigation," author Mark Greif, a sociologist and professor at the New School in New York City, argues that taste is a hipster's primary currency.

"Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up," he said. "These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters."

When this excerpt from Greif's book was published in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in November of 2011, comments flooded the Times website, sparking harsh debate about what it means to be a contemporary hipster and — according to Greif — generating more excitement than any of his previous articles on health care, young conservatives and feminism.

"I received email messages both furious and plaintive," he said. "Normally inquisitive people protested that there could be no answer and no definition, and perfectly blameless individuals began flagellating themselves: ‘Am I a hipster?'"

Greif says that so much seems at stake for such a superficial topic because matters of taste are never just about preference.

"Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition," he said. "Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit."

Following a panel discussion hosted by Greif after the release of his book, Rob Horning, a columnist for the Web publication PopMatters, pondered whether true hipsters really exist or if society is simply always haunted by a pervasive fear of hipsters: "Maybe that collective fear and contempt conjures them into being, just as the Red Scare saw communities everywhere, or how the Stasi made spies of everyone."

By the same token, Horning claims that by inciting a fear of hipsters, late capitalism actually brings hipsterism to the forefront of the social and cultural discussion.

"The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce everything to just another signifier of personal identity," he said. "Thus, they force on us a sense of the burden of identity, of constantly having to curate it if only to avoid seeming like a hipster."

It is not the merely their cultural reputation that diehard hipsters find so vexing, but the recent mainstream metamorphosis of hipsterism from a social and intellectual movement into a fashion statement.

Jessica Alessi, 27, is a sales clerk at The Buffalo Exchange, Wicker Park's largest resale shop. She says hipsters have been around for decades, but the recognition of hipster as a style of dress is recent.

"I'm used to seeing middle-aged hippies and starving artists come in to buy clothes," she said. "But in the last couple of years, we've been seeing younger customers come into the store with their parents' credit cards, carrying bags from Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, looking to buy whatever makes them look bohemian."

Alessi believes that the shift in Buffalo Exchange clientele indicates the corporatization of hipsterism, once embodied by the grungy, social outsider and now tailored to the young, modern dilettante.

"Marketers have put a price tag on hipster," she said. "It's far less of a social movement now that hipster is something you can buy rather than a cultural mentality."

Greif posed the same idea in his book — shedding light on the tendency of middle-class hipsters to malign "trust fund hipsters," whom he classifies as "the philistine wealthy, possessed of money but not the nose for culture." According to Greif, rich hipsters have the ability to convert tangible capital into "cultural capital," thus "acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear."

As hipsterism migrates from isolated, bohemian, inner-city enclaves to the storefronts on Michigan Avenue, the great hipster identity crisis seems without resolution. Closeted hipsters can't bear to be labeled as such, and admitted hipsters are seen by their cohorts as phonies.

"How do we stop running that race?" Horning asks. "How do we stop worrying about the degree to which we are ‘hip,' the degree to which our treasured self-conceptions can be made into chichés against our will?"

Channeling the bemusement of lost pseudo-hipsters everywhere, a bandana-clad Ghofrani said he doesn't know the answer.

"We're so collectively confused about what makes a hipster that I think pretty much anyone could meet the cultural qualifications," he said. "That's part of what hipsters hate so much about being called hipsters — they're not unique anymore."

While some veteran and budding hipsters like Horning and Ghofrani (respectively) may agonize over this unsolvable social riddle for years to come — attempting to reach some eventual state of hip cultural enlightenment — most of those taking part in Chicago's hipster phenomenon appear to be coping with their chagrin by smoking heavily, purchasing ample amounts of plaid clothing, and quietly seeking the admiration of their fellow hipsters with their "eclectic" accessories and impeccable taste in indie rock.


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