The hipster revolution: how beards took over the world

Thomas Williams

Fiona Allon

Fiona Allon

Hipsterdom’s fixation with kale, vinyl records, typewriters, beards and locally-produced organic food is often the subject of ridicule, but its adoption by the so-called mainstream is leading researchers to consider how alternative consumption patterns are changing communities and cities.

Dr Fiona Allon, senior lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, spoke to an almost hipster-less crowd at the Sydney Writers’ Festival’s Curiosity Stage on Saturday, May 23. In her presentation, Dr Allon said hipster identity is being expressed through “tiny revolutions” in consumption, which are increasingly affecting both global and local economies.

“The hipster prizes the idiosyncratic, the unique and the analogue above all else, especially in the fast and bland world of American consumerism, defined by giant corporations and alienated labour,” Dr Allon said. “The hipster is the quintessential postmodern consumer, using consumption and style to shape identity and to make it a bit more authentic.”

Taking the famously bushy hipster beard as a key example, Dr Allon said hipsters’ preoccupation with facial hair is now accused of being responsible for decreases in razor blade sales, as companies like Schick and Gillette grow increasingly nervous. “Walking around Surry Hills, Redfern, Glebe and Newtown you sometimes feel as if you are swimming in an ocean of beard,” Dr Allon said. “But the hipster beard has the razor-making conglomerates on the back foot.”

While razor-makers have felt the brunt of hipsterdom’s facial hair fashions, other businesses are seeing increased interest, and even full-blown revivals. “Major tobacco companies have capitalised on hipster emotions, attitudes and values by targeting cool and underground art and music scenes,” Dr Allon said.

Locally, “indie consumption” is leading to new business models within what’s often referred to as the sharing economy. “Rentachook — a business which allows you to rent out chickens, complete with a chook wire run — has become one of the most booming businesses in metropolitan Sydney,” Dr Allon said.

Coupled with the density of inner-city spaces, however, phenomenons such as Rentachook can lead to a degree of dissonance because, as Dr Allon explained, “Some young men look like 19th century farmers, but where in the inner-city are the green fields? The organic orchards? The uncontaminated earth? The only foliage around seems to be that growing on everyone’s visage.”

This lack of fertile space has led to rooftop gardens, green offices and horizontal vegetation popping up in the Sydney metropolitan area, changing the city’s landscape and fuelling a rise in sustainable living.

Dr Allon’s most recent book, Renovation Nation: Our Obsession with Home, discusses Australia’s fixation on home ownership and renovations. One of her current projects, Hipster Urbanism: Cities, Restructuring and the Pop Up: Spatial Fix, analyses how hipsters’ appropriations of the home and other spaces continue to change suburban culture, and which carries some inherent contradictions. “Hipsters are anti-establishment, yet uniformly conformist,” Dr Allon said. “They are redemptive, yet ironic, community focused, yet thoroughly individualised.”

What’s more, these contradictions have spread thanks to the increasingly mainstream appeal of the hipster lifestyle. “The hipster aesthetic has become hegemonic, not just in traditionally alternative areas like Newtown, Glebe and Surry Hills, but in more conventionally suburban areas of Sydney too,” Dr Allon said.

So what next for hipsterdom? According to Dr Allon, the effects of hipster culture will have longterm implications even if quinoa salad, artisanal bread, beekeeping, pop-up shops and mason jars slowly die out. “I certainly don’t spend much time getting around on my single-gear ‘fixie’ bike without brakes and wearing my high and tight-waisted shorts or skinny jeans,” Dr Allon said.

“It’s really fashionable to say, ‘The hipster’s time is over. They’ve gone. They were about the past.’ But I think a lot of the things they are interested in around sustainability and localism actually persist. That ethos is being taken up by a lot of other groups, and that is what will continue on. Those things have been picked up by the mainstream, and I think that’s a really good thing.”