Men in British Columbia, 1859, one in a newly discovered collection of early photographs of white settlers and First Nations in B.C. © Vancouver Sun
[First of all: apologies for length. If you're thinking tl;dr, I understand. If I'd had more time, this would have been shorter.]
I am probably as bored of casual hipster-slagging as you are. In fact I may be as fed up with hipster-bashing as I am with the hipster phenomenon itself—in all its varieties. I think what bores me about most critiques of hipsters, though, is not that they predictably fixate on the easy target of a repetitive style, but that they are almost always superficial and ahistorical. Annoyance at the tribal codes of hipsters is too often itself just tribal. Either that or it never surpasses “if you’re looking like a logger, best learn how to use a chainsaw,” not that I don’t have a lot of sympathy with that sentiment. But virtually no one seems to be talking about the fact that certain hipster aesthetics have some pretty troubling historical antecedents which, when juxtaposed with current realities, seem more disturbing with every passing day. In particular, I’m bothered by the fact that here in my own place and time, haunted as it is by its colonial past, I’m seeing men adopt a late 19thC, white male, pioneer aesthetic. In short: WTF.
Why are political-historical critiques of this ubuitous style so absent? Maybe it stems from the fact that if you even tentatively point out problems with hipster codes in a casual conversation, people get really exercised about it. Even some of those employed in cultural studies or related fields will disavow that retro aesthetic references actually mean anything, pop up for any real reason, or have any significant connection to any particular history. Try it. You will probably face defensive, condescending, eye-rolling reactions like “that was then, this is now,” or “anything goes these days,” or “but you don’t realize meaning is fluid!” or just because I’m wearing a haircut widely called the Nazi Youth doesn’t mean it has anything to do with Hitler; Hitler is dead and so on. If you propose that aesthetics aren’t purely random—if you suggest that aesthetics are in fact the thin end of the wedge of politics—you quickly find yourself in an unpopular minority in the room. I’m serious; try it.
Road to unpopularity or not, I want to talk about how jarring the “heritage hipster” phenomenon feels now that it has become the face of such things as the wave of gentrification hitting Chinatown and neighbouring areas of old Vancouver.
As anyone who has watched the satirical TV sketch show Portlandia knows, the “heritage hipster” style harks back to late 19thC white male North America. Portlandia has it as “the Dream of the 1890s” (see video below). The style’s historical referents are actually a little all over the place, being an amalgam of merchant or pioneer styles from 1850 to 1910, perhaps with some Depression-era 1930s and a little 1940s-50s overlaid on top. However the 1890s (that lesser known decade of catastrophic economic depression) seems to be its magnetic centre.
I have wanted to make an observation about this style for at least seven or eight years, but I kept thinking it had to be on its way out—why not just let it quietly fade away along with its homemade pickles, pies, striped canvas aprons, taxidermy and saloon decor involving rusty antique handsaws. Even two years ago I thought I’d missed the boat and that it was too late for even a post-mortem. Now however I see that news of the heritage hipster’s death was premature.
What I think about when I see you wear this stuff in my neighbourhood
I live in a diverse and historically conflicted part of Vancouver, right at the confluence of Chinatown and an area known as the Downtown Eastside (DTES). It is the oldest part of Vancouver and one of the poorest postal codes in the country. Because it is close to downtown, condo tower developers have recently set their sights on it in what can only be called a land rush, one that our developer-captured City Hall has done nothing to decelerate. In Vancouver’s infamous climate of rampant real estate speculation, this neighbourhood is now experiencing skyrocketing rents, renoviction and demolition which are quickly driving out the neighbourhood’s traditional inhabitants: Chinese and other elders, the urban poor, many First Nations people, low-income workers and the homeless.
Coincidentally—or not—much of this neighbourhood dates precisely from the 1890s. Chinatown was founded in the mid 1880s but only really grew to a noticeable size and population in the following decade. The same is more or less true for the whole Downtown Eastside. The Uchida/Ming Sun building on Powell Street, one of Vancouver’s 18 oldest buildings and one we’ve been trying to save for housing, dates from 1889. It was a crucially important building in Nihonmachi (or Japantown). What I’m getting at this that workers of many different origins lived around these parts, all working in the colonial resource sector including at the Hastings Mill or in the service sector that grew up around it. In short, this neighbourhood was not solely populated by white guys with waxed moustachios who looked as if they’d just exited a barbershop quartet.
In Chinatown, the 1890s and early 1900s were marked by constant conflict with a city government that habitually imposed on it repressive and racist laws: curfews, bans of traditional BBQ (a restaurant and social mainstay), and other regulations that were clearly targeted at a specific cultural group. (And I’m not even getting into the issue of the oppressive federal Head Tax here.) Tensions ran high and anti-Chinese racism, only legitimated by all the racialized regulations, carried with it the threat of intimidation and violence. Finally on September 7, 1907, “members of the white Asiatic Exclusion League marched to Chinatown where they beat up dozens of Chinese, wrecked stores and smashed windows. Order was not restored for several days.” [Read more at Simon Fraser University's "Vancouver Chinatown 1886-2011."] That’s what it was like in Chinatown around the turn of the last century.
And the history of Chinatown is only one element here. Vancouver was in the 1890s a young colonial city, only several decades old. It was built on land taken not long before from the Coast Salish people—Musqueam, Tseil-Waututh and Squamish—without even so much as a treaty. Today Vancouver still sits on this unceded aboriginal territory. More broadly speaking, Vancouver’s settlement in the late 19th C was part of a systematic process across Canada of clearing the West for the railway and settlement, driving First Nations from their land and way of life using forced removals, deliberate starvation, residential schools and other tactics that are relatively well-known. The photo at the top of this post, the one showing bearded white men in BC in 1859, was taken smack in the middle of this era, as was the photo below (both via Vancouver Sun).
To be fair, while some of this racist local history is known, many of its most glaring elements are not. When writers Ali Kazimi and Henry Yu gave some historical background at the launch of Kazimi’s book Undesirables (about Vancouver’s Komagata Maru incident of 1914), even a very informed local audience was visibly surprised. We need to better understand that this was an era of overt white supremacism that appeared in all levels of government, from local Vancouver city politics to the provincial capital to Prime Ministers John A. Macdonald and William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Whether aware of the full details or not, anyone who lives and works in this neighbourhood and doesn’t sense these histories would seem to be indulging in at least some degree of studied oblivion. Even if you could, for yourself, surgically remove the aesthetics of that time from their origins, how can you guarantee that others will deem your efforts a success? What fantasy 1890s are you in, exactly? More importantly, what identity are you asserting?
Top, B.C. MP R.G. MacPherson’s remarks about Punjabi immigrants to the province. 1906. Above, future Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s dream of a white Canada, from a 1908 report.
Before the recent wave of gentrification in Chinatown, the few non-Chinese shopowners in Chinatown made at least some attempt to fit in and honour local history and aesthetics. There weren’t that many of them and they did a good job of bringing some present-day activity to the area in a way that seemed creatively sensitive to context.
But a couple of years ago as buildings in Chinatown and the DTES emptied out in advance of condo developments, and as shopfronts become available either as placeholders or as deliberate window-dressing for future condo locations, hipster joints full of antlers and beards began to appear overnight. There was zero visible attempt to work with the local historic context. Shops with ampersanded anglo names (Jones & Smith? Smith & Wesson? Bear & Buck? I can’t remember) arrived and so did restaurants with turn of the last century butcher shop aesthetics and lots of generic settler/pioneer decor that looked more Brooklyn or Manitoba than Vancouver. Meanwhile, at the very same time, resistance to the social and architectural destruction of Chinatown was growing. (See David Wong on loss of Chinatown culture in La Source.)* I am not suggesting that incoming merchants should have adopted a twee Chinois appropriation aesthetic and everything would have been fine. I am just pointing out that to many of us local residents, all this dressing and decorating like a white 1890s settler in Chinatown, while also giving convenient cover to the incoming condo developers, looks pretty effing audacious.
To return to another issue, during the same period we saw in BC and across the country a marked resurgence of actions by First Nations, largely against resource development on traditional lands. Idle No More, a movement started by First Nations activist women in December 2012, was a clear sign of a FN population increasingly organized and lawyered against a colonial system which, like the Indian Act of 1876, still persists.
In addition to all this accelerated luxury condo development in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods and increasing First Nations mobilization, 2014 was a year of reckoning and “reconciliation” in four key non-white communities in Vancouver and B.C. It’s the 100th year anniversary of Vancouver’s Komagata Maru episode, which included a federal apology; there is the ongoing First Nations Truth and Reconciliation Commission over issues including residential schools and a key Supreme Court win for BC First Nations on the road to reconciliation; there was a City of Vancouver apology for the internment of Japanese Canadians; and a BC apology to Chinese Canadians for the Head Tax.
Perhaps it was the confluence of all these things in 2014 that suddenly made the 1890s white male hipster aesthetic so flat out intolerable. In the context of both the history of Chinatown and the DTES and what’s happening here now, the obliviousness of this mode of self expression is staggering. Context is everything, and in this context, the heritage hipster aesthetic looks worse than oblivious: disingenuous at best, aggressive at worst. The defense that it’s ironic doesn’t wash. Who are you performing that irony for, exactly?
As an aside, I would also add that even without the racial and colonial issues, I’d have a problem with this style for reasons involving its disingenuousness around gender and class. Why does no one talk about this style’s 100% male adoption? I’ve asked many friends about this and none of them can think of its true female equivalent. Indeed, how could women (white, let alone non-white) adopt an 1890’s style in the same casual way? Shall I go back to wearing long dresses and not having the vote? For that matter, the heritage hipster is only one of many traditionally masculine styles that are currently being dusted off with way too much enthusiasm, all of which seem to be nostalgic for some old school white masculinity or other. Secondly I haven’t dealt with the fact that the heritage hipster is a largely working class style affected by middle class white boys. This spree of class tourism isn’t justified by the fact that even though their upbringings were middle class their futures may not be. The “slumming” issue has its own complicated history and it’s one I can’t deal with here as well as it has been dealt with elsewhere. If you are a disenfranchised millennial or Gen Y man, is there no other means of signalling that you are DIY and libertarian than these retrogressive trappings? But I digress.
Since there are always exceptions that prove the rule, I should point out that not all critiques of hipsterism are depoliticized. See Bill Deresiewicz’s excellent Generation Sell and I also liked A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ from Jezebel in 2012. Here’s an interesting observation from its comment stream:
“What no one seems to talk about are the racial politics of hipster culture, which is odd since the early hipsters were engaged in a dialogue with amongst other things BeBop and therefore black culture, just as the Skins in the 60’s were addressing ska and Blue Beat and the Punks in the 70’s were influenced by reggae. Hipsterdom today seems like an unapologetic return to unmediated, sartorial proletarian whiteness. Troubling.”
Are our historical aesthetic references innocent or not? It seems to me that fashion is a language, or at least mode of cultural expression, and that people make aesthetic choices because consciously or not they chime with their aspirations, fantasies and values. Maybe some would find my juxtaposition of 1890s heritage hipster aesthetic with actual on-the-ground 1890s local history somewhat tenuous. Maybe I’m oversensitized to these things having majored in history. Still, I just don’t buy it. For me, making the connection between this style and the realities of its origin is unavoidable, and its implications are very, very stark. For the sake of argument, though, let’s entertain the idea that fashion is not a language, and culture in general consists of items that spin meaninglessly in a blender and can be conveniently unmoored from history. In that case, how is one style chosen over any other? Are our choices purely random? Is is just that we like shiny—or plaid—things? Is it merely an accident that people have retained this aesthetic for eight straight years (highly unusual in fashion), and in this place? If dressing in the style of a white pioneer from the late 19thC means nothing, why defend it so vigorously when challenged? I find it impossible to believe that this is not a deeply meaningful code, and a code designed to assert a particular type of entitlement. I use that term in both the general and land use senses. This may be one of the few instances when I agree with the otherwise idiotic New Age maxim that “everything happens for a reason.”
For your reading pleasure, or not, here is a plethora of links on heritage hipsters and related topics:
The Great Heritage-Hipster Clusterfuck of 2009/10/11 (… it didn’t end in 2011 – Ed.)
Vancouver people dress poorly, by IHateVan
Why do people hate hipsters?
Piss Off You Hipster Git
Will Self: The awful cult of the talentless hipster has taken over
Will Self, keep your cardigan on. Blanket disdain for hipsters is so tired
Is it OK to Hate Hipsters
Beware of cupcake fascism
The pernicious realities of artwashing
Shit Settlers Said
The Heritage Hipster Matrix 2010
The racially fraught history of the American beard
Charting the rise of Generation Yawn
“In other words, he looked entirely typical of the kind of 21st-century hipster conformist who has adopted a wild-man-of-the-woods look even though he works in marketing and only leaves the city to attend music festivals.” (Guardian)
Also see So NOW: On Normcore for a good discussion of where critique is now & the question of “post-criticality.” Much of that article will stand as a challenge to some of my own arguments and method above.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971, Robert Altman. Shot in Vancouver in 1970, set in 1899
*Re gentrification: Before my discussion is derailed by the sidestep argument that it’s really artists who are responsible for gentrification, and why blame a few hipsters, let me say this. While some art galleries have moved into the area, it’s not so easy to say they’re agents of gentrification in the way the posh hipster restaurants are. Centre A and Gallery 221A are part of the Chinese community and have furthermore been highlighting and even opposing rampant luxury development in Chinatown. Last week I went to the best community I’ve ever attended at Centre A, in which diverse members of the community were brought together to talk about a tower slated to tower over Sun Yat Sen Gardens. And that’s only a tiny part of the community building activities that these art centres have been involved in. While it’s always impossible to avoid artwashing entirely, I see the role of these centres as somewhat distinct from the new restaurant and real estate entrepreneurs.