On sunny days, Foss Hill doubles as a sort of runway for the high-fashion hipster style that has come to define Wesleyan culture. Painted toes highlight the rough strap of old Birkenstocks; black laces weave through faux leather Doc Martens. It’s like an advertisement for mom jeans: girl sits perfectly perched against a sturdy tree, cigarette rests in right hand, hip tooched out just enough to highlight the denim’s thoughtfully burnt-out texture. Oh, and we have everything else in denim too: shorts and jorts and long overalls and short overalls and skirt overalls and overalls that leave the breasts exposed but oddly have long pants attached. Top all this off with a pair of large hoop earrings and a bandanna worn as an accessory, and the look is complete.
So when the sun shines and fall emerges, all seems trendy and happy on the hill. But did you know that underneath “looking like a hipster” lies a steaming and murky underbelly?
Type in “hipster” on Reddit, and you’ll be lost for hours, threading through ideological declarations and controversial name-calling and straight-up nastiness on a near-Lewinskian level. The sum of all the ranting reaffirms what is paradoxical about this counterculture phenomenon: “Hipster” is a prominent and identifiable subculture, yet if you call someone a hipster, or ask if someone identifies with being a hipster, it’s an unquestionable insult.
It’s an insult because the suggestion that you look “hipster” implies you’re trying too hard, or that your “look” is not unique. Instead, you’re just a part of some wider cultural style, a style that attempts to go against the mainstream. Of course, as a counterculture, we derisively judge the mainstream. Here comes the paradox of hipster fashion, part two: We wear outfits that scream, “I don’t care what the mainstream tells me I should look like!” And yet, we’re undeniably feeding into the giant institution of high fashion.
What kinds of judgments do we make about a person who wears J Brand jeans and a Cartier bracelet? Probably one harsher than we would be comfortable admitting. Those jeans cost $150, and you can get them at Nordstrom Rack for half the price. The unique Free People jacket, on the other hand, costs upward of $200.
Herein lies the problem. The “hipster” look is far from universal, but not because only a small community of angsty people rebel against the mainstream. Rather, it’s not universal because being a hipster is prohibitively expensive. This is a style largely reserved for an elite class of educated people with the money to buy that vintage denim jacket. Those Birkenstocks cost $100; the Fjallraven backpacks are around one hundred. Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie are pricey (far too pricey for the quality of clothes they’re selling, but that’s an argument for another time).
It’s an exclusive group by means of socioeconomic standing. If you don’t dress a certain way, you’re immediately put in the out-group. And often, to dress that way, you need money.
This is not a criticism of how we all choose to dress. This is not even an argument for allocating your resources toward something more meaningful than those crunchy Teva sandals or that vintage, embellished jacket. Instead, it is a call to consider the kinds of judgments we pass on people who dress a certain way. It’s a call to consider the kind of people we want to be, and the kind of people we actually are.
This idea brings up the next ethical argument in hipster fashion: thrifting. Over the last decade, thrift shopping has grown increasingly popular. From 2007 to 2012, Goodwill Industries, a big name in secondhand shopping, said it experienced an 84 percent increase in revenue. And besides the statistics, you know thrift shopping has grown popular because the word “thrifting” is now used as nearly every part of speech. “You thrift that?” “It’s thrift.” “Want to go thrifting?”
Thrift shopping has grown popular as a cultural activity. However, in certain communities, those second-hand stores are a primary source of shopping for people who cannot afford store brands. Thrift stores create a space where fashion is more accessible to all people. But when people with the means to buy from other stores purchase from second-hand stores, they’re taking away the opportunity for others to buy those clothes. In the cases of nonprofits like Goodwill, which uses its profits to benefit lower-income communities, this ethical concern plagues me less. Other stores have been specifically curated for a particular market of shoppers who have come to enjoy thrifting as a hobby, not out of necessity.
I dress the way I dress because, for me, my outfit is a form of self-expression. I feel creative when I wake up in the morning and pick out my clothes; I imagine many other people feel similarly. As such, perhaps what we need is more transparency. When I wake up tomorrow and put on my overalls (not the ones with the breast cutouts—I’m not that hipster) I should recognize that my outfit is representative of a culture that I have opinions and thoughts about, and how often the exclusivity of that culture tends to fly under the radar. I should also recognize that if someone were to judge me solely based on my outfit, they’d be missing out on some of the rad things about me that are not written on the label of my shirt.
Jodie Kahan is a member of the class of 2021. Jodie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.