Hipsters: eco-friendly heirs to William Morris

Middle class millennials in search of the good life

In Praise of

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The concept of the hipster was born roughly around the same time on both sides of the Atlantic. They popped up in newly-trendy urban areas such as  Brooklyn and Shoreditch — generally (but not exclusively) white, middle- and upper-class twentysomethings, typically artsy and progressive, often working in emerging industries (or not working at all). They were introduced to a wider audience in 2003 through the gentle Hipster Handbook in America and two years later in Britain, through the rather savage Channel 4 sitcom, Nathan Barley. 

The charge sheet against them is deceptively long, with bizarre concepts like “hipster sexism” and “hipster racism” (of which more later) appearing alongside 50 different synonyms for pretension. But boil away the bile, and you’re left with two central accusations: one spiritual, the other material.

Hipsters are following in the footsteps of William Morris (with beards to match)

Firstly, hipsters are guilty of an obsession with “authenticity” and a belief that they are either ahead of or behind fashion, whilst embodying a narcissistic pursuit of style. Indeed, the “hipster paradox” questions quite why a tribe so self-consciously in pursuit of individuality can all look the same. 

Secondly, they’re accused of “gentrification”; the colonisation of previously affordable working-class neighbourhoods. According to this theory hipsters move into down-at-heel urban areas, coo over crumbling brickwork and graffiti and price out long-term residents. Expensive cafés and shops crop up and the rough charms of the region are appropriated by the children of the elite who think it’s cool to slum it as long as they can bring their home comforts. 

But the charges don’t stack up. Take away the ad hominem, and the real crime they’re guilty of is being young people with money in their pocket, an eye for aesthetics and a desire to live ethically. 

With their love of vintage clothing, hand-made furniture, and locally sourced food, hipsters are following in the footsteps of William Morris (with beards to match). Far from their desire for authenticity being surface deep, their actual misdeed is having the temerity to try to put their principles into practice by changing their patterns of consumption. 

Nor are they simply otherworldly posturers. They don’t just go to vintage shops or buy fair trade goods; they’re entrepreneurs who start ethical businesses, vegan restaurants, and local bike shops and cafés. 

Although generally politically progressive, hipsters have the whiff of a more implicitly Tory radicalism about them. This trait was first identified in Rod Dreher’s prescient book Crunchy Cons, with its “Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas and Right-Wing Nature Lovers”. 

Rather than sitting in leafy suburbs ordering their ethics from a catalogue, they’ve set out to live their aesthetic and moral convictions in the dodgier end of town, bringing commerce and jobs with them. Why does this admirable intent to put their money where their moccasins are justify the abuse?

A useful scapegoat for social anxieties that cannot be otherwise safely expressed

And as much as people sneer at all those hipster outlets, what is so terrible about the fact that in large parts of the country you can now get a decent coffee, or a proper shave? Men of my father’s generation will recall the dark age in which the gents’ barber was dying out and men went instead to the “unisex hairdresser”. Now you can recline in leather chairs while men with fire and sharp razors treat you in the style to which ancient Persian kings were accustomed. 

Hipsters take flak from often older and more comfortable cultural commentators who see any movement against consumerism as “elitist”. And in a certain type of establishment ex-radical, it’s hard to escape the whiff of bad conscience driving the venom against a generation of youngsters trying to live out their ideals. 

But it’s here that we nudge the underbelly of anti-hipster hate. The claim that picturesque gentrification is driving the decline of working-class urban life is frequently made, but rarely substantiated. The venom serves as a form of displacement activity, with the ephemeral figure of the hipster acting as a useful scapegoat for social anxieties that cannot be otherwise safely expressed.

It’s true that in some cities, and particularly in London, traditional working-class cultures and neighbourhoods certainly have been irrevocably changed by incomers — but they’re not young middle-class people who like artisan coffee. Indeed, while some early hipsters really were young, upwardly mobile people with disposable incomes, many of today’s hipsters live precarious lives with little hope of providing for a family or buying a home. 

That is not the financial consequences of hipsterism at work, but the inevitable pressure caused by unprecedented volumes of international migration. 

They are trying to be the good global citizens they were told to be

At the high end of the market, this has been driven by the preference of the world’s super-rich to live, at least for some of the year, in London. The utra-wealthy of Russia and the Middle East have transformed areas such as Kensington, driving up house prices and fuelling a roaring trade in luxury shops and high-end restaurants. Many of these neighbourhoods were already well-heeled, and few commentators mourn the displacement of the only somewhat rich to former working-class areas like Fulham or Chiswick. 

Ironically the areas in East London that hipsters are accused of gentrifying were already transformed from their old status as Cockney heartlands by the working-class flight from grimy terraces to the suburbs and satellite towns, as well as by waves of migration from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Caribbean. 

Many of these migrants are, like the hipsters, young and upwardly mobile: working-class African and Indian children are far more likely to go to university than their white working-class counterparts. They, like hipsters, are enterprising. They open shops, restaurants and cafés, selling food previously unfamiliar to the sniffier elements of Britain’s older middle class.

Like them, hipsters have answered the call of multiculturalism. They are trying to be the good global citizens they were told to be and actively seek to live and work in diverse areas and communities. 

Yet again we find that the hipster is sincere in his or her beliefs and it is this very authenticity that so riles their critics. Not only are they guilty of gentrification (living near foreigners) but of “cultural appropriation” (appreciating foreign culture). 

Yes, hipsters can frequently appear absurd and ridiculous. Yes, they may well have a high opinion of themselves and have a desperate need to look cool. But these are not exclusive features of a self-regarding pariah subculture, but of young people in general; in particular, those among them who are richest in hope and potential.

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