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The Indiana Jones of the local Salvation Army

Picking the right ironic t-shirt is part science, part craft

Whither the spelunking hipster?
  • Whither the spelunking hipster?
  • Photograph by Chris Woo

Dear Hipster:

As a second (but not third) generation fashion iconoclast — though I do have a great-grandparent who made distinctly eccentric sartorial choices in his day — I feel welling up in me a deep desire to raise the bar on the quality of what gets to constitute hipsterism. I’m hoping you agree, or at least are open to discussion: are the elements of coolness merely a consumer decision? I feel strongly that true hipsterism must involve elements of creativity, whether homemade, upcycled, scavenged, gifted, or creatively repurposed. There must be a good story behind every element. What say you?

— Adrienne, Beyond the Mall

Indeed, I suspect you’re onto something here.

Take, for example, the thrift shop chic of the late-aughts and early-twenty tens. Back then, the most hipster thing you could have was a cool, ironic t-shirt. But woe betide the poor hipster wannabe who merely waltzed out to Old Navy and tried (ahem) to buy one, freshly printed off the rack. No, the only acceptable means of acquiring a suitably ironic t-shirt was through spelunking the depths of the local Salvation Army, hoping for something genuinely cast off, yet cool enough to see the light of day. I think every hipster considered himself the Indiana Jones of the local thrift store, and secret stashes of uncool coolness were jealously guarded. Picking the right ironic t-shirt was part science, part craft; but the sine qua non of hipster style was the “scavenged” element you identify.

But that was then. Now, deep dives into the thrift shop bargain bin are the stuff of dated comedy rap songs. As for the future, who knows? Certainly, some element of creativity and/or repurposing will characterize the style choices of tomorrow’s hipsters. Although hipster style always has elements of staying “on trend” — which is an inherently consumer-driven motivation if ever there was one — trendiness gets balanced out by a dedication to standing out from the crowd.

In some ways, hipsters are like those insanely colorful jungle birds that feature heavily in BBC nature documentaries. To the average viewer, one brightly colored kook looks much like another. I sure can’t distinguish between Bird A, who has a spectacular crown of crimson feathers and does a kind of reverse moonwalk on a skinny twig, and Bird B, who also has a spectacular crimson crown and could out-moonwalk a Michael Jackson impersonator. I would imaging most non-hipster types feel the same way about crowds of hipsters at the local street fair. But, back to the birds, we know they can tell the difference. You watch those little birdos doing their crazy bird dances, and for whatever reason, some of the birds stand out, whereas the other birds don’t even rate. Sure, they’re all doing more or less the same ridiculous dance, but some birds manage to out-bird the other birds, like they somehow put together a rad fluorescent outfit that’s more compelling than the next bird’s rad fluorescent outfit. On the flip side, you know the birds wouldn’t get any love if they totally did their own thing. The other birds wouldn’t get it.

Maybe there’s some evolutionary advantage to being able to do what everyone else is doing, except you can do it better somehow. In the wild, that’s how you find a mate, at least if you’re a bird who dresses like Elton John; whereas in modern society, that’s how you get hella likes on your Snapchat story.

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