Are hipsters really that hip? Peter York’s BBC4 film takes down this modern breed

The style guru and author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook explains why hipsters are just Thatcher's children – with better beards

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What do you think when you hear the word “hipster”? And what pictures come into your head? The answer will depend on where you live, as much as your age. If you live in or near the centre of a major city rather than a verdant suburb – still less a West Country hamlet – you’d have a lot more to say because you’ve seen these new young people who seem to be taking over. If you live in inner East London, for instance; you’d be able to describe the dress code of hipsters to a T, even if your own style tends towards, say, the Nigel Farage look or the Vernon Kay one.

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The other way you’d know would be if one of your little darlings had gone away to university and then starting working as, say, a web designer in London and had come home some time over the last few years with a new ginger beard, plaid shirt and very tight and rather too short jeans.

Hipsters are more than a dress code – and that’s just the current stereotype I’ve described, for a group that’s changing all the time. Hipsters are young-ish – usually twenties and thirties rather than teens – usually middle class or at least ‘educated’ people who live in the fast changing/improving bits of the old inner cities. Places where there’s interesting space – a former factory or office – to be had cheaply (before it gets fashionable anyway).

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I’ve just made a film about hipsters for BBC4 because they’re so completely the children of our time.  They seem, at first, like the natural descendants of beatniks and hippies – a sort of bohemian type who wants a very different world. But get closer and they’re every bit as much Thatcher’s Children; interested in living a Nice Life and starting up successful little businesses. Businesses doing new things of course, in digital design and social media, developing jokey new apps, new street food or themed bars in converted spaces.

If you’d actually always wanted to say “my son the doctor/solicitor/accountant”, you might have had a the feeling that there’s some expensive education gone to waste there. But then you’d have learnt that they weren’t all that rebellious. Concerned about the environment probably, and interested in organic food, gap-year exotic street food certainly, and with a funny clever way of dressing that took old styles – ‘vintage’ and charity shop things no one wears seriously now – and turned them on their head.

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Sloane Ranger Peter York examining hipsterdom

Your nice wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly son has gone from, say, a Jack Wills thoroughly British “Baby Sloane”, or looking like a One Direction member, to something more like a bearded beat poet in 1950s Greenwich Village (or odder still, a Victorian scientist!). They’re something outside the obvious, the mainstream or the shopping centre and something that, for the first time, you really can’t quite get the hang of.

Hipsters are very visual, they’re the children and grandchildren of people who’ve been bombarded with images in the mainstream media (MSM as they call it to distinguish it from their media diet, social media everything, specialist sites, bloggers and vloggers form all over the world).

By the same token they want their clothes – and the places they live in – to be more interesting and authentic.They want things with ‘character’ and a back-story. “High St” is a seriously bad word for them.

Hipsters are an Anglo-American invention – more them than us to be honest – of the late 90s. You can trace them back – sort of – to all sorts of tribes and youth movements. To the art-and-music types who moved to the East End of London (think Jarvis Cocker, think Tracy Emin!) in the mid 90s or to the rebels of 50s Greenwich Village in New York. And the word goes back to ‘hip’ black jazz-lovers in early twentieth century America. But fascinatingly they’re not really like any of these people.

We’ve been talking to hipster and hipster-watchers here and in America (in the world’s hipster capital Williamsburg in Brooklyn). What we saw and heard made me think we’ll all be getting a bit hipster, as this century draws on. 

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Peter York’s Hipster Handbook is on BBC4 on Thursday 3rd November at 9pm