Beatnik Hipster Vs. Millennial Hipster: What Does Hipster Really Mean?

The term ‘hipster’ has become quite popular in recent years as a way to describe a certain subset of individuals. When you hear the word, it no doubt conjures up images of bearded men in skinny jeans knitting ironically while sitting in a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop no one has ever heard of. But what does the word ‘hipster’ really mean? Curious to know how this particular phrase came to be so (paradoxically) mainstream? Read on to discover a little bit about its origins and history.

Photo via Flickr

What does it mean?

First of all, what is the definition of hipster? On the one hand we have the more formal definition which states that hipster is “a person who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream.” Hmmm…seems simple enough, right? It’s someone who follows the latest fashions, but ONLY those outside of the mainstream. Then, on the other hand, we have the Urban dictionary definition which was so remarkably long I figured I’d save you the pain of reading through an entire page of what it means to be a hipster and leave you instead with this rather humorous excerpt: “Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.” So apparently being a hipster is so much more than just dressing outside of the cultural mainstream, it affects every aspect of your life, from the music you listen to, to the political views you hold. I guess being a hipster isn’t as easy as it appears!

Photo via Flickr

Who was the first?

It’s believed that the jazz clubs in 1940s Harlem were responsible for coining the phrase and jazz pianist Harry Raab made it popular when he added it to his stage name: Harry ‘the Hipster’ Gibson. Back in the day, a hipster was someone who was ahead of the cultural curve. They might take part in aspects of culture that weren’t the norm. In Gibson’s case it was the mere act of being a white musician who performed in predominantly black jazz clubs. To some scholars it seemed an act of rebellion on his part. A white American who adopted black music, culture, and political views was considered to be rebelling against the capitalist greed that ruled America. ‘Hipster’ was someone who didn’t fit the stereotype of what it meant to be a typical white American. ‘Hipster’ was a phrase reserved for rebels. Sure, they were privileged rebels who could go back to their cushy white American lifestyle anytime they chose – a privilege black Americans didn’t have – but rebels nonetheless.

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What about today?

Today, the word ‘hipster’ is so common, it’s definition so expanded, that it’s difficult to pinpoint who would really be considered a hipster and who wouldn’t.  ‘Hipster’ can be used to define a fashion stereotype: someone who wears beanies, flannel shirts, and vintage clothing would be labeled a hipster, whether they considered themselves one or not. The millennial hipster has also completely changed the meaning of the word and how we perceive it. Hipsters are no longer rebels so much as they are individuals making a conscious effort to go against the flow and be different for the sake of being different. In fact, it’s such a common part of being a millennial these days that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate yourself from everyone else. That’s right, folks, hipsters have become the mainstream. Instead of being the ones to create change and form a part of it like our hipster ancestors of yore (I’m talking the 1950s here), we’ve become an entire generation who consumes cool instead of actually creating it.

Photo via Flickr

Is there a stigma?

Since ‘hipster’ has gone so completely mainstream, you’d assume there would be some sort of stigma attached to being labeled that way. After all, no true, to-the-core hipster would want to be associated with all those surface hipsters right? Right. Anymore, the use of the word ‘hipster’ tends to carry sarcastic and mocking tones. It’s a way to make fun of someone’s obscure music taste, or mock their penchant for second-hand clothes. Its meaning has devolved from being someone who goes against the mainstream to being someone who tries so hard to go against the mainstream that they’re just a little obnoxious. I don’t even think a true hipster would welcome being called a hipster anymore.

What do you think defines a hipster? Have you ever been called one? What is the first image that comes to mind when you think ‘hipster’?