Monday, October 26, 2015

The Hipster Eclipse part II - Birth in a Million Sunrises

How does a fashion and whole life style genre gain a critical mass and go on to become so iconic as Punk was in the late 70s, hippie before that and now of course the urban woodsman look and artisan lifestyle of the modern-day  Hipster?

Every such 'movement' , being more than an off the peg fashion choice and more a total lifestyle statement, has its roots long before they emerge and then they have their protagonists who propell the sect into the limelight. The hippies can trace their roots back to the free spirits of the post war motorcylce escapists who became part of the beat generation, and then the hipsters of the 1950s who were spawned of the late 40s beats into the 1950s and early 60s.

In my last essay I blogged about the root to Hipsterdom but here I wanted to inject a little more theory into the evolution of the biggest fashion movement this last two decades,  since white boys started wearing puffa jackets, baseball trainers and squinty oversized baseball caps. Also I wanted to think through out loud the economics of Hipsterdom and earlier incarnations of the heavier lifestyle fashions which have arisen post war.

Innovators and Early Adopters

In consumer studies (and I would say studies rather than theory, this is more empirical than philosophical) marketing academics talk about three phases important to a product category. These phases relate to the chronological graph of growth in a categories volume or value over time. The innovators come first, followed by the closely associated group  of lead consumers, the early adopters and then the next group which are either called the 'early majority' or broken down a little more as the second standard deviation when considering the burned out graph historically.
Usually this graph is referrred to as the Product Life Cycle but when considering a whole genre ecompassing many fashion items, styles and products then it is kind of a primary trend graph from which other product life cycles can trace their ascendency.

A fashion or lifestyle genre is very much aligned with this because it is all about conspicuous consumption. Even if you were like me, part of a quite underground movement - me an eighties indie fan -  you are making a very visible statement to your peers if not society at large, and in choosing to shy away from the 'plastic public' you are making a similar decision as the Chelsea set shopping in exclusive designer boutiques on the King's Road.

As I wrote in the first "Hipster Eclipse" these roots are echos down the decades, and I propose that they all trace back to the post war Beat generation in the late 40s and early 50s.

Soldiers, aviators and those in homeland defence factories, were spat out at the other end of the war in the USA to a country which offered the clean cut and educated a lot, but which was rapidly becoming more overtly socially conservative as would be seen in the reaction against the racial rights movements and in McCarthyism in the subsequent decades. Some of the great warriors and industry workers were left disilussioned with having to fit in as a cog in a greater machine, and got a taste of different culture, artisan food and drink when compared to their mass produced rations and the very ugly machinery of war.

Some of these characters took to Harley Davidson and Indian motorcylces, or railway hoboing and became the drifters who would eventually let their hair and beards grow, thus becoming the first North American bohemian prototype for the hell's angels, the hippies and then today of course, the Hipsters. Others became artisans, working on something niche like fixing old motor bikes or wood turning, smoking meats and fish and so on, to live an individualistic lifestyle and deal with customers in small numbers they could relate to directly.

Individualism and its self statement through lifestyle and dress sense, can be linked to those who are the innovators and those who are nearest to them or those who are most receptive and indeed neophilic - seeking the new, the exciting, the unique. Even a very small core of very visible innovators can influence these neophiles via media or metropolitan districts which attract the educated artisans, misfits and drop outs of the day. At this point of transfer it has become a fashion - people no longer are just trying out new things and maybe forming new connections and exhcanges of ideas. The early adopters are following more than they are leading.

However in turn the early adopters spread the word and image and the often young, fashion conscious consumer wants in on the act. There is an obvious critical mass. The 'beautiful people' are doing it. It has also become safe enough to dare just that little to go into it, and available enough through chain stores or by the proliferation og specialist outlets such as the Carnaby Street roll out in the 1960s. The threshold to mass consumption is physically and psychologically lower, and it snow-balls out perhaps reaching an exponential phase in adoption numbers or value of sales.

So who are these innovators in the Hipster movement, and who are the beautiful people who were so keen to adopt a hick back woods beard and braces look?

The Beautiful and Often Gay People of Innovation and Style Leadership

I think that you can see that in the 1960s various threads of fashion were first adorned literally by the beautiful people - the models and pop stars of the time, and this became the cliche of the glam rock 70s and then the product placement 80s.

 Hipster is far more underground though and I think personally you can trace the biggest echo in its fashion root to the 1980s gay scene, and eventual 1990s style "gurus" epitomised by " Red or Dead". In the eighties there was a sudden gay reaction against the plastic and pretentious club fashions of the time into crew cuts, cheque shirts, 'docs' (boots) and head to toe faded denim. It was both dated and very ironic because it was pretty much like the so much maligned skin head fashion of the late 70s. It became all the rage too with lesbians who could have a boyish, tough look while communicating surreptitiously to other lesbians without perhaps the public noticing. The whole look took off amongst mid to late 80s students, being affordable, highly functional and quite cool, only to be then later regurgitated in the 1990s as oh-so-knowingly ironic and high priced designer trash clothes.

Talking of trash,  In fact though you can see from going back to the 1970s that hipster is a carbon copy with some gilt edges of the 1970s post hippy redneck woodsman look. With wild sideburns and quiffed short back and sides, this made a side show in the 1980s as the post punk "Pyscho Billy" genre. Full beards remained firmly for old, fat real ale drinking farts and the young men of the Apelachians.

I would like to have the time and budget to find the modern day proto hipsters, who I would say belonged to the gay community and developed the look as early as the late 90s. I dare say that they were the innovators and a large part of the early adopters. I think you can see that Hipster as a gay movement in outset by the fact that the fashion is very, very male dominated.

Somewhat ironic that the male Hipster look has become very iconographic for the modern, alpha male with soft edges that women may desire. This is in large because many male models came out with the big beard look maybe five or six years ago, and it has a staying power.

Why Hipster is More Hip Than Fashion in General 

At this point in the product life cycle something a little odd happens. This is because, a bit like going the whole hog as a punk in 1977, the hipster look, appendages and lifestyle takes more committment than just going into a chain store when they decide to roll out the look via clothes and accessories.

Hipster has a far higher threshold to participation. Firstly there is all that beard growing and trimming the old hedge into the Achaen columner beard, more down than out so to speak. Then there are artisan tattoos, one of those guilt edges which mark the modern Hipster as in the cognicenti and not just in a rusty pick up from the sticks. Ink is for life, and says something about you.

For the new rich set, despite Hipster fashion swaggering down the odd cat walk, it just does not capture the right communication for them. The children of the Reagan era born into wealth and corporate opportunity are looking for conservatism and exclusivity, not being called a douchebag walking down Fifth Avenue or on the beach in the Hamptons.

Then there is also all the "Hipster douchebag" slagging which started as soon as the internet meme media got hold of it. Prior to this, a bit like our anti-plastic-league 1980s indiedom, insults hurled across a street from a gang of squares or bitchy comments passed on the "pixettes" by highheeled working class tarts in a down town bar, were taken as confirmation and that we were doing the right thing! Being shouted at by some dick means that there is often safety in numbers so there are hipster communities springing up on the cheap side of towm, and in cheap towns like Detroit, where an otherwise economically unviable lifestyle and logistically difficult set of tastes can form a nuclear core with enough critical mass to humm yet not explode.

The Hipster Economy

Following on from this last point, the whole artisan and rather twee consumer attitudes of the Hipster means that they congregate around districts and towns where there is a high availability of things like craft beers, period leather and tweeds,  and slow food.

Being aritsan in nature this sets a large barrier to further explosion of the Hipster lifestyle as an industrial fashion. Artisan does not scale well. Yes you can buy new, premium priced designer Hipster clothes and paraphenalia, but the core of followers are still the modern disilllusioned.

You could argue that Hipsters are basically cheap skates, finding a fashion affordable by the charity shop availability of the themes of clothes, cameras, typewriters and so on. It is true to say that many Hipsters find their lifestyle choices and lower middle class status has marginalised them economically compared to the mainstream of corporate american, and even the skilled blue collar worker.

In fact for women coming to the movement, a blog worthy in its own right, it offers an alternative route to fulfillment than just being as pretty as you can and hoping to marry a corporate executive or trust fund playboy. Where are women in Hipsterism ? Yeah, a lot less visible but a powerful force no doubt. Do they follow, are they the modern housewife second job ? Or are they many of the new SME leaders ?

The Hipsters are/were middle class kids who just see the whole corporate America thing for the cubicle slave debt factory it has become. They see house prices in their middle class subburbs as being unattainable and the yuppie life style of the 80s aspirational as  now being for the few from far wealthier families who can get those wages or share portfolios to fund a Porsche and Ralph Lauren lifestyle which once any hard working graduate could achieve in the 80s. Like Hippy, Hipster is very much turn on, tune in drop out.

Economically then for many it is about being niche and loving it, and about finding the cheap areas which are just safe enough from gang violence to be habitable. It is also about seeking non traditional, artisan and entreprenerial lifestyles or careers within comunity work and social enterprises where you can get a job turning up in a cheque shirt without having shaved for six years.

The Hipster Economy self protects then to an extent. It is still a niche market and while growth may be high, potential is limited, thus Anheuser Busch may scout for new beer recipies, but wont be going into the market. It is kind of self exclusive then, the barrier to entry for corporate is its small and undefinable future size,  and the barrier to mass consumption is the lack of scalability of artisan based products and service businesses.

I think that in fact the Hipster economy could become the new mantra for middle class kids who see that meritocracy has all but evapourated in corporate careers, and wages have been stagnant and eroded in the SME sector of squaredom. The opporunity for young intelligent, energetic people with no ivy league and country club connections is to reduce their living costs and use some of their income either to become artisan entrepreneurs or to consumer and be consumed by these new bread of Hipster spawned SME.

Hipster- Eclipsed by Its Own Success

Here we come to close the circle on what my thread of discussion is and why I have entitled this blog "The Hipster Eclipse". No longer can you say 'beardy weirdy", the genie is out of the bottle and the verdict is cool amongst many folk ready to be influenced, while the squares of other worn out fashions and lifestyles can shout 'douchebag' all they want.

So if hipster does overcome the cries of  " douchebag " and go mainstream big time, then it will not implode but simply evolve around the mass marketed image to become something new, or rather old - perhaps quoting from punk or clean shaving beatnik days. However its legacy in the artisan SME economy may eclipse the size of the movement and become the luanch pad for the new 'belle epoque' for the artistic, the educated, the disillusioned and the young entrepreneur.

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