"Hipster" Was Cool Before You Even Knew About It

Thursday, March 93 min read

The word “hipster,” originally interchangeable with “hepster,” has been used in American English for a little more than a hundred years. Although the different origins of “hip” and “hep” are a bit vague, “hip” showed up in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as early as 1904, and “hep” appeared a few years earlier. “Hipster” denoted the fashionable, unconventional, and in-the-know folks of each generation before it took on a snarkier connotation in the late aughts. Originally, “hip” meant “informed” or “in the know,” while the suffix “-ster” in Middle English implied a certain type of person. Before hipsters were too cool for the common folk, the word’s roots came from the uniquely American jazz music scene.

The Jazz Age Hipster

In the 1930s, the word “hepster” referred to the fashionable dancers, musicians, and music lovers who epitomized the Jazz Age, the cultural and artistic renaissance in America during the 1920s and 1930s. Jazz music, popularized in city nightclubs and speakeasies, eventually found its way to suburbia, and America’s youth rebuked the norms of previous generations and embraced hip new sounds and styles.

In 1938, American jazz singer and dancer Cab Calloway penned a book called Hepster’s Dictionary (the first dictionary written by a Black American), which served as a guide to Harlem’s jazz-influenced slang. The dictionary became the New York Public Library’s official reference book for jive slang.

From there, “hepster” was replaced more and more by “hipster.” A 2016 New York Times article credits the word’s rise in popularity after the Jazz Age to musician Harry Raab, who took on the stage name “Harry ‘the Hipster’ Gibson” in the 1940s. The same article also pinpoints the shift from “hipster” describing “in-the-know cool” to ironic pretension: “The New York Times has used the word “hipster” about 3,000 times since 1851, the bulk of those references coming in a boomlet after the year 2000. It was typically used to describe a class of people who moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, wearing white tank tops and clutching cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon — until those people were priced out of the neighborhood, of course.”

Swinging Hips and Hip Flasks

In 1932, the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper (also known as The Afro) called dancer and singer Josephine Baker “Harlem’s banana-shaking hipster,” referring to the banana skirt she wore during her most celebrated show, Danse Sauvage. This use of “hipster” likely did double duty, as Baker was one of the most popular performers at the time, but she was also literally moving her hips. The American-born Baker became a sensation in both France and New York, ultimately establishing her as one of the most influential performers of her generation and one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

During the Prohibition years of 1920 to 1933, clever imbibers would don hip flasks in order to carry around their own supply of booze, thus earning them the name “hipsters.” An early use of the word in a 1920s New York Tribune article references the hip flasks obliquely: “How can twenty-five men keep Chicago dry, when it would take that many to watch the hipsters in one hotel dining room?” The rebellious hip-flask drinkers possibly inspired the counterculture term “hippie” of a few decades later.

Who Is a Hipster?

Until the end of the 20th century, the word “hipster” continued to signify artistic types who stood outside the perceived norms of society. However, the word eventually took on a kind of cynicism, referencing a seemingly effortless, yet distinctly curated look that conjured up the artist/musician trope of previous decades. “Hipster” became a label thrown out with disdain, an ironic punchline: Were modern hipsters artistic trailblazers like the Jazz Age musicians and dancers, or were they privileged pretenders?

A 2010 New York Times essay by Mark Greif describes the word as a pejorative superficial term: “No one, it seemed, thought of himself as a hipster, and when someone called you a hipster, the term was an insult. Paradoxically, those who used the insult were themselves often said to resemble hipsters — they wore the skinny jeans and big eyeglasses, gathered in tiny enclaves in big cities, and looked down on mainstream fashions and ‘tourists.’”

One thing is certain: The word “hipster” symbolizes much more than just a contemporary cultural trend related to fashion, artisanal coffee bars, or urban-dwelling musicians. Whether it’s the hip-shaking stars of the Harlem Renaissance, the intellectuals and free-thinkers of the last century, jazz musicians and bebop connoisseurs, or flask-wearing rebels of the Prohibition era, “hipster” speaks to the various revolutionary, artistic, and cultural movements unique to the United States over the past century. “Hipster” represents a rich history of American culture that belies more than its punchline status.

Featured image credit: FilippoBacci/ iStock

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