What is a Hipster?

wiseGEEK Writer

Hipster can be a confusing term, since it has several meanings when discussing counterculture trends. One meaning connects back to the jazz movement of the 1940s through the early 1960s and before the term hippie was popularized. Another definition references a more modern use of the term hipster, as it might be used in common language today.

Hipster often support environmental initiatives.
Hipster often support environmental initiatives.

Initially the words hipster, hip, hep, and hepster might all have been used to describe certain folks who emulated a certain type of lifestyle, particularly connected to jazz music and the musicians who performed it. Special kinds of slang were used, and people who described themselves as hipsters tended to be sexually promiscuous, interested in using marijuana, and in general promoting a lifestyle that was easy going, relaxed and unrelated to the main culture. It’s thus considered a counterculture movement.

Modern hipsters are considered somewhat inauthentic.
Modern hipsters are considered somewhat inauthentic.

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Some hipsters were specifically interested in jazz, but yet another definition was added with the writings of Beat Poets. In particular, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road can be seen as a depiction of many who lived this type of life style. To a certain degree, this form of hipster might be less interested in jazz, though music could be important. More importantly, Kerouac’s novel emphasizes some of the language and attitudes of a vibrant counterculture.

A prototypical hipster wears a hooded sweatshirt and wears thick-rimmed glasses.
A prototypical hipster wears a hooded sweatshirt and wears thick-rimmed glasses.

These early definitions are in great contrast to the way the term is currently used, though some of the attitudes remain similar. Since the 1990s, the hipster, who may also be called a scenester, is potentially middle to upper class with an interest in a variety of counterculture or alternative movements. These may include vegetarianism, extremely pro-green policies, and post-punk and alternative music. Hipsters of today could be classed as having an interest in things that are definitely not traditional or mainstream.

Some call the modern movement specifically inauthentic. Fashion trends for instance may dictate finding retro or thrift store clothing, but hipsters may well be able to afford new clothes given middle class or upper class status. Some people argue that the lifestyle doesn’t come from true conviction but a desire to identify with what is popularly different at the time, and that makes hipsters fairly predictable in what they will embrace.

No doubt plenty of people who identify with this movement would beg to differ with this assessment. The accusation that a modern hipster stands on the shoulders of counterculture giants like the hippies or the first hipsters and doesn’t have firm convictions also bears some scrutiny. Many hipsters have found logical and spiritual homes in counterculture movements of the past. They may choose a lifestyle that is specifically different since it makes global sense to avoid eating meat, or bike instead of using gas to get to work. It would be a mistake to claim that all people who could be classed as hipsters today do not have serious convictions that inform their decisions.

Each generation has its own version of the hipster.
Each generation has its own version of the hipster.

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Discussion Comments


Well said. I appreciate the historical context you've provided. Now, I know this whole thing is trivial and silly, but it baffles me and gets on my nerves sometimes so I'd like to weigh in.

I'm a guy who grew up in the 80's playing in punk bands since 14. These people were not into reading in coffee shops - they were screwed up kids looking for an outlet, something different. "Indie rock" is a term for bands of the punk family who were on independent labels which means almost every single band we ever listened to for the last 30 years, except it's much softer than "punk".

Those skinny jeans everyone wears are verbatim Richard Hell circa 1977, especially with the wingtips. And then there's the "thrift store" clothes that people buy from stores who pick through the clothes for you and charge twice as much as any real thrift store. What's the point? It doesn't mean anything anymore - everyone's doing it.

So we know this whole thing is derived from punk rock but without any conviction and it's much, much softer. These guys would never fight you. If you made fun of their clothes, they'd probably cry. because I wear I straight leg black jeans, black t shirts and All Stars, and have messy hair, I've been called a hipster on occasion. Man, my clothes are so generic.

When I was 13 or 14, they didn't call you hip for wearing weird clothes, skateboarding and listening to punk rock. They called you a loser or something. I would say that the word "hipster" is synonymous with the word we used to use "poseur". To me, hipster is definitely a derogatory term.

I hate to say it, but when I was a kid most of these guys they call hipsters would have gotten the crap kicked out of them - and no, that is not what I want. I just feel sorry for them. They don't even know where they came from.

I bought a CD recently in a W'burg store and the kid who worked there had never heard of the Voidoids.

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