When I was in New York City earlier this year, I took some pictures of a person lying on a couch on a sidewalk in the East Village. I wasn’t sure if he was a hipster or a homeless person. This question has come up numerous times in my hipster field research over the last couple years, and it’s definitely becoming harder to tell the difference. Apparently the homeless look is hotter than ever. Actually, I first noticed the trend a few years ago in L.A. and wrote a post on my blog entitled “Derelict Chic” back in 2007.
Recently I read an article from Details that summarized and analyzed the trend quite nicely. The piece, “How Looking Poor Became the New Status Symbol,” puts the emerging class of wanna-look-poor hipsters under the microscope and coins them “the poorgeoisie.” In the article, author Steven Kandell suggests that while the poorgeoisie is largely in rebellion against the Wall Street, Reaganite yuppie set, they’re ultimately just as consumer minded. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from the article:
While Wall Street's hedge-funders have become whipping boys, those who have mastered the art of inconspicuous consumption are living as large as ever. But they're not easy to spot, resembling, as they do, Trotskyite grad students—a look that doesn't come cheap: $300 Acne jeans, $175 hand-stitched guayabera shirt, $150 mussed haircut with beard trim (not too short, please). This brand of consumerism escapes condemnation—it's okay to be a capitalist pig as long as you're the sort who roots around in your organic garden for truffles.
… Just because the cultural moment is dominated by bloodlust for the heads of AIG executives doesn't mean public sentiment has turned against the accumulation of material possessions—it's just that the material in question is likely to be double-brushed flannel. And that's the advantage guys who look like Devendra Banhart have over guys who look like Patrick Bateman: The poorgeois are in cultural camouflage, blending in perfectly with a landscape full of genuine privation. The fact that their accoutrements may cost more than many suits is their secret pride.
Kandell goes on in the article to elaborate on the notion of “inconspicuous consumption” and “under the radar rich,” which is the form of materialism these hipsters prefer (i.e. materialism that buys only local produce, handmade clothes, hybrid cars, and anything that offsets a consumerist carbon footprint). But this is nothing particularly new. We all know that while hipsters may be a “special sort” of capitalist, they are capitalists nonetheless.
Kandell’s most insightful stuff comes at the end of the article when he describes the philosophy that underpins the poorgeois lifestyle in Brooklyn, Silver Lake, and Portland as being “almost indistinguishable from the justifications of an I-banker who drives a Maserati and wears a bespoke suit: that quality, craftsmanship, and rareness are worth paying top dollar for.”
Kandell is right on in saying that the current hipster consumer sensibility privileges anything that is “a throwback to pre-industrial times, when regular folks actually knew how to make things with their hands.” Hipsters love things that are homemade or handmade. Things like hand-carved wooden jewelry, self-cured meats, and home-grown vegetables. They also love things that are old and vintage: antique tables, grandmother’s dresses, 60s sunglasses. And Kandell also picks up on the current 20s-era speakeasy rage, which fits nicely into the new big-spending-and-yet-inconspicuous-hipster trend: “Good-bye, $300 worth of bottle-service vodka in the back corner of a velvet-rope warehouse; hello, $300 worth of single-malt-and-Chartreuse Depression-era cocktails mixed by a mustachioed dude wearing an arm garter.” It’s SO true. I’ve seen this in person and its exactly as Kandell describes—down to the arm garter.
Of course, on one level none of this is really new. Thorstein Veblen wrote all about this stuff back in 1899 with his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Even back then in the Victorian era, Veblen picked up on the fact that the fashionable classes found authentic or hand-made things desirable while mass-produced, machine-made products were deemed unsightly and pedestrian.
“The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought good, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness. This margin must never be so wide as to show bunging workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost… The objection to machine products is often formulated as an objection to the commonness of such goods. What is common is within the (pecuniary) reach of many people. Its consumption is therefore not honorific, since it does not serve the purpose of a favourable invidious comparison with other consumers. Hence the consumption, or even the sight of such goods, is inseparable from an odious suggestion of the lower levels of human life, and one comes away from their contemplation with a pervading sense of meanness that is extremely distasteful and depressing to a person of sensibility.”
How true Veblen’s words are even today! Though the Victorian aristocrats he was writing about likely would faint at the prospect of dressing like a destitute vagrant, they share many other attributes with the contemporary poorgeoisie hipsters. Both seek things that are rare and hard-to-find (and thus inaccessible to the mainstream masses); both avoid the “common” things that are mass produced and mass consumed by people with negligible taste (things like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and pleated slacks). And though the Victorian aristocrat was a lot more conspicuous than the more socially conscious “I can only spend $30 on a cocktail in the secret speakeasy darkness where no homeless person or starving child will see me” hipster, both are in the business of finding and accumulating (or imbibing) high quality things.
So before hipsters start decrying the audacious, materialistic lives of their suburban hedge fund foes, they should probably take a look at themselves and audit their own consumptive habits.