2003 felt like an in-between sort of year. The worst of the financial crash was over. The initial shock of 9/11 had curdled into something steadier and more sinister. The millennium had been and gone, with no Y2K “bug” to speak of. In hindsight, however, youth culture in particular was in the middle of a significant shift. The camera phone had just been made widely available outside of Japan. Myspace, a social networking site, launched that summer. And the word “hipster” – a term now so dead it belongs in history books – had just began to sit casually on acerbic tongues across the globe. If you lived in these areas, you definitely weren’t immune: Williamsburg and Bushwick in New York, Shoreditch and Hoxton in London, Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Stockholm’s Södermalm, LA’s Silver Lake.
Today, “hipster” might conjure ancient millennial caricatures of men with beards being nerdy about micro brews or something. But back then, the term was a little more all-encompassing and hard to pin down. In The Hipster Handbook, published 2003, Williamsburg writer Robert Lanham describes hipsters as young people with “mop-top haircuts, swinging retro pocketbooks, talking on cell phones, smoking European cigarettes.” In the UK, the hipster was famously parodied in 2005 sitcom Nathan Barley, which followed a bunch of ignorant “scenesters” working in – ahem – new media (a magazine called SugarApe), wearing stupid hats and riding tiny tricycles around the office. The definition may have differed by location, but it essentially boiled down to the same thing: young people with “pretentious” styles and interests – models, DJs, those just out of art or fashion school – living in parts of the city that were on the edge of gentrification. Walk around Shoreditch in the early 2000s, and you’d encounter boys and girls in stonewashed denim, thick-rimmed fluorescent sunglasses, weird chopper bicycles with big handles. Vibes wise, hipsterism existed in a Venn diagram between unseriousness and cynicism (as a kid growing up in east London, I remember my local coffee shop labelling their white sugar “cocaine” and their brown “heroin”). VICE was the pinnacle of hipsterism. As was American Apparel, even Apple. We hear the term “indie sleaze” now, but all of that would have been shoved under the hipster umbrella.
While the word was regularly spoken with a sneer or an eye roll, it wasn’t always. “Hipster” was sometimes used neutrally to describe anyone rejecting mainstream consumption – although there was always a tinge of “you’re a poser” about it, depending on who you spoke to. Artist and producer Bishi Bhattacharya, who lived and partied in east London throughout her teens and 20s, remembers the word first cropping up in the late 90s, before spreading. “‘Hipster’ meant people who searched [for] underground counterculture, alternative press and alternative scenes,” she says now. “Hipsterdom was about turning away from the glow of the mainstream, reality TV and Richard Curtis movies.” But hipsterism also tended to lean towards the white and middle class – white kids moving out of their parental homes, cutting DIY fringes and overrunning Black and brown neighbourhoods. The stereotype of hipsters – skinny white girls in American Apparel ads, boys with asymmetric haircuts or handlebar moustaches, was often white, although not always. “It was a distinctly Caucasian and white-centred notion of attractiveness that I was invisible in as a brown Bengali teen,” says Bishi. “My body looked more like the bodies in Destiny's Child videos and, although that was heavily fetishised, it was not considered as attractive. I loved the excitement and artistic hedonism of early 2000s Shoreditch… I just wasn't the standard.”
What was especially evasive about the term is that nobody would ever define themselves as such. It was more about what you weren’t. I might have reasonably been labelled a hipster at one point – I worked in an East End vintage store, after all, before studying at Goldsmiths and working at VICE (“How can you sleep at night with that combo?” a Tinder match once asked) – but I considered the expression cringe; a word thrown about by boring people to describe anyone “into stuff”. “The term ‘hipster’ always to me felt quite generic,” remembers Hanna Hanra, culture journalist, DJ and editor of BEAT magazine. “Someone would aspire to be a hipster; but the actual ‘hipsters’ were a little more subtle in what they were doing and creating. Maybe that is it… you had to try and be a hipster, but if you were cool, it came a little more naturally.”Indeed, hipsterism was somehow both twistedly aspirational and widely maligned. Professor Heike Steinhoff, author of Hipster Culture: Transnational and Intersectional Perspectives, sums up this odd paradox succinctly: “On the one hand, the label hipster was often used in a critical manner as a short-hand for fake individualism, gentrification and a lot that was perceived as wrong about neoliberal consumer culture,” she says. “On the other, hipster aesthetics and styles seemed to be much adored as they increasingly became mainstream through various processes of commodification and imitation.”
Steinhoff has a point. By the early to mid 2010s, classic hipster aesthetics had permeated the mainstream to such a degree that the term soon felt obsolete. By then, we had Urban Outfitters selling identikit vintage clothes. Restaurants and coffee shops across the globe had become unanimously “quirky” (food stopped being served on actual plates and cocktails, for some reason, had to be served in jam jars). The vinyl revival was no longer confined to music nerds and DJs – anyone could buy records from Urban Outfitters or Amazon, with vinyl sales surging post 2010. Depop, founded in 2011, swiftly became the go-to app for thrifting.
From there, hipsterism spread, like a virus clutching a boob art tote bag and a vegan Bratwurst. Steinhoff namechecks “Airbnb style, minimalism, Scandinavian design, industrial style, urban gardening, DIY, upcycling, the now corporate-led construction of co-working spaces, bars and hotels that feature interior designs in the aforementioned styles” as examples of how hipsterism snowballed into what we now recognise as mainstream culture. Walk into any Lidl and even Poundland today, and you can buy a plastic HAY-style crate and some fake Crocs. Such is the invisible influence – and eventual plateauing – of hipsterism as we knew it.
In a 2015 essay for VICE, culture writer Drew Millard described this evolution neatly: “The true hipsters have become too mainstream to remain hip, and the mainstream itself has reacted by picking up that which was once alt. The ethos of the hipster has spread throughout culture to the point that the hipster is no more.”It’s no coincidence that hipsterism also dwindled alongside the rise of smartphone technology. Hipsterism by nature was localised, and defined by underground consumption, both of which were reshaped by social media. “It meant that you didn't have to search that hard for things that were rare or alternative,” explains Bishi. The so-called ‘cool kids’ were also no longer just white boys in neon snapbacks or girls who looked like Agyness Deyn: “The upswing of feminism on Twitter and the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement around 2013, meant that different kinds of voices could now take up space. Aesthetics and style could not be filtered solely through a white lens. And this has made for a much richer culture.”Speak to anyone under 23 today, and they probably won’t remember the term hipster, let alone use it. It sounds dated, filed away in history between words like “grunger” and “chav”. “When in a research seminar on ‘hipster culture’ in winter 2021, some of the younger students were no longer familiar with the term,” recalls Steinhoff.
But the hipster arguably isn’t totally nullified – it’s just evolved, fragmented. Head down to the Windmill pub in Brixton on any given weeknight and you’ll see kids in tracksuit bottoms and cowboy boots (yes, I have personally witnessed this combo), watching a DIY band called something like SPITTLE. You might point to young, alt queer kids as a sort of contemporary hipster too: freshly shaved heads, stick ‘n’ pokes, open mic poetry nights in someone’s garden in Glasgow. Or maybe the hipster now exists among the hyper online: TikTok-pilled users making corecore videos, music nerds gathering on the Frost Children Discord, your ex-boyfriend running a post-ironic anti-establishment meme page. And what of the original hipsters? Well, that guy who used to do bumps of K off a little spoon at parties and once auditioned for the Klaxons is probably a 30-something hypebeast now who works in consultancy and buys CBD candles from Goodhood. That DJ slash model slash ‘it girl’ from Silver Lake probably got married, had kids and moved somewhere less polluted. “They’re sharing their loft-style apartment with two kids, happy about the park and playground in front of it,” says Steinhoff. In other words: the hipsters are in their 30s and 40s today, many with the wealth you’d expect from a middle class background and stakes in the early 2000s digital media boom. Ultimately, there will always be young people hungry to separate themselves from normie culture. And, as the rise and fall of the hipster has taught us, there will always be those desperate to look like they are separating themselves from normie culture, which is, arguably, the most normie thing of all. Either way, the hipster may be long gone. The concept, however, remains ubiquitous.