I’m only just now coming to this Times opinion piece from last November by assistant professor at Princeton University, Christy Wampole. Overall, it’s an expert meditation on the irony-afflicted, retro-crazed hipster movement and its apparently baneful effects on everything from our modern culture to how America is perceived abroad. Wampole presents the hipster as a sort of walking recycle bin spilling over with pallid imitations. Even the term hipster is an appropriation (my mind still stubbornly flashes to a mental snapshot of James Coburn).
I’m not being disingenuous when I say this piece was an eye-opener for me. I keep a low noise floor when it comes to anything relating to popular culture (to this day, I have never heard a Britney Spears song). After having read Professor Wampole’s piece, my takeaway is that the hipster fad is really more of a cheap surrogate for youth culture than actual youth culture; y’know — if it ain’t youth culture, it’ll do until the real youth culture gets here.
There were one or two things about Wampole’s otherwise highly enjoyable polemic that lodged in my craw. First, this kind of thing really boils down to a guilty pleasure; sociological grabassery, or the more academic version of your favorite band sucks. I mean, let’s face it: getting at the exploded view of whatever shape mainstream happiness has assumed today and comparing it against your own personal blueprint is bound to prove disappointing — particularly for anyone as erudite as Dr. Wampole. As such, poking holes in a target as broad and flimsy as the hipster is almost too easy; a bit like crafting an elaborate argument against using Brasso as a condiment, just for the sake of having an excuse to exercise your skillz at arguing. Then there was that purple-ish patch she quoted from her friend with the three names. No. Just no…it’s one or the other: three names or bombast; you don’t get to have both.
The really big pimple, though, was Wampole’s suggestion that having affection for things non-contemporaneous to one’s personal history is somehow hipster bedrock. I deeply hate this idea, and so I figured I might spend a few well-caffeinated paragraphs chipping away at it.
RETRO V OLDE
Terms like retro and vintage can cast even the most magnificent artifact as something ditzy or kitsch. After all, do we regard the librarian who listens to Preludes and Fugues for the Virginal as a big retro music chick? Is the man who sharpens his straight razor with a horsehide strop really just being retro? Is everyone on The Antiques Roadshow really just a buncha hipsters? Is the long haul trucker who loves real maple syrup just being all pretentious & shit? Is the carpenter who covets postwar power tools for their superior durability really just being an insincere asshole?
I happen to really like the old stuff. I’m tempted to insert the word timeless here, but I won’t, because one, it’s overused, and second, I think it’s become something of an intellectual smokescreen used by some people to get out of feeling stuck in the past, by scratching out the ‘sell by’ dates printed on the sides of all their treasure.
I first became occupied with matters antediluvian when I was twelve or thirteen — so late eighties — well before buzzwords like retro or vintage, and long before I entertained any notions of nostalgia. I grew up in a provincial hinterland where the only entertainment available outside of my own devout onanism consisted of an incomplete third-hand encyclopaedia set, free Marvel comics from 7-11, and a diminutive G-rated VHS library. For whatever reason, G-rated films from the 80’s tended also to be period films. We had them all: Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, White Fang and the last film in the Indiana Jones trilogy. Best of all the bunch were the generic SP copies of Chaplin and Mayo flicks that were mixed in. I watched and re-watched all of these tapes, soaking in the look of them, but especially the clothing, hairstyles and set pieces. I easily lost a years worth of sleep over those pale blue spectators worn by Doody’s character in The Last Crusade. Why in hell didn’t women’s shoes still look like that? (80’s shoes sucked.) And how about the hair? Whenever some moll slapped her beau in a Howard Hawks film, she’d unleash a tonsorial avalanche of dramatic, Vitalis-sodden forelock. I remember thinking to myself that that’s how all men’s hair should look — five miles of shellac’d tresses piled up and shoved back in shining waves (also sucking in the 80’s: coiffure). Whenever I’d watch a modern-day G-rated film, everything looked like bullshit to me; the ridiculous stonewashed jeans someone like Rick Moranis might be wearing looked like a lost bet compared to the ones Clark Gable was chasing around in forty years before. Even the coolest cars in contemporary films were forgettable at best; yeah, keep your pretentious-ass’d Delorian — gimme that 1937 Lincoln Zephyr coupe-sedan!
Like any impressionable squirt, I started trying to style myself after my heroes. Vintage clothing boutiques weren’t yet a concern anywhere around me in those days, so I started seeking out contemporary duds that embodied even the vaguest elements of the clothing from my favorite periods. I went apeshit for argyle patterns, pale yellows, salmons, tans & browns; likewise, linens, gabardine and freckled tweed all made the strings go zing. I remember I came across a shirt in a Ross Dress-For-Less made from a tan hopsack-like material; I lifted it, got it home and cut the collar off to make it look more like something Leslie Howard might’ve worn in The Petrified Forest. Shoes were the trickiest. I settled for a pair of disused saddle shoes rescued from the back of my dad’s closet, as they were the closest looking thing to a pair of spectators I could get my hands on, (I wore three pairs of socks just to make the bastards fit — two pair of crappy white gym socks covered with one of my three pairs of more stylish argyles). While the other delinquents were off skateboarding and huffing paint behind the 7-11 on Saturdays, you could find me cycling my ass off alone to the Jo-Ann Fabric four zip codes away to cadge Rit dye and period-looking buttons with which to retrofit a modern piece.
This might all sound like some precocious, fetishistic bent, and maybe it was that; but it was also sincere. It certainly had nothing to do with being hip. I actually made life difficult for myself, but I couldn’t help it; that’s how deeply I appreciated what I perceived as the more imaginative compositions and superior construction in the old stuff as opposed to the Hobe beachwear shirts and puffy LA Gear booties so coveted by my peers (in whose inevitable ridicule I did bask).
I salute anyone sensitive enough to discern and embrace the details of certain bygone conventions, even if their enthusiasm does spill over into cheap approximation from time to time. In fact, I think this single distinction is one for which Wampole or her editor might have better allowed for: Ideally, one shouldn’t trivialize the object of their passion with tawdry imitation. You won’t see me running around trying to look like an ersatz Gatsby or Tom Joad, (yeah, I know, I’ve seen that kid around town, too). But feeling inspired by sensibilities which came before your ability to load up a diaper is truly a mark of refinement. It says something about you; it says you’re not welded to the here and now; you look around and pick out what works best, regardless of what fashion or tradition dictates. If you were that way, and we lived on the same street, we would absolutely be friends (Wampole would be the chick on the block who avoided eye contact whenever you waved hello) — yes, even if you drank PBR and wore short jorts and had a forty-niner mustache and played the trombone. The euphonium would be even better, though…
This is something of a pet theme to which I’ll invariably return.