I feel a little bad for Christy Wampole. She’s the assistant professor of French Studies at Princeton who published the op-ed piece, “How to Live Without Irony” in the New York Times last Sunday. In my mind, I see her finishing the essay, polishing the language, getting it to a place of feeling good about it. I can imagine the excitement, anticipating that it would be published in the Opinionator section of the Times. Perhaps she wondered how many people would read it.
Once published, it was one of the most e-mailed and commented-upon articles of the week – and not necessarily in a good way. Though most of the commentary has been quite civil and thoughtful, the flaws in the argument were easy to spot: the lack of precision in locating irony within Western history; the assumption that hipsters can be stereotyped as apathetic, insincere, superficial individuals by virtue of how they dress and the objects with which they surround themselves; failure to acknowledge how irony is desirable in many social and political situations; and on and on. Perhaps it’s true that any publicity is good publicity, and this is a career-maker for a professor who just began her career at Princeton. But still, I feel a little bad.
So I’d like to start by making connections between Wampole’s argument and that of others who have made similar linkages between retro (looking backward in the realm of aesthetics and material culture), irony and social distance.
As someone who is interested in our culture’s engagement with retro style, it was this paragraph from “How to Live Without Irony” that particularly stood out to me:
The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
Christy Wampole is not the first to observe that “nostalgic” dressing is ironic and find the practice problematic. In my research on when vintage dressing moved from fringe to mainstream in American culture, I have encountered similar expressions of irritation with young people who” appropriate outmoded fashions” for the sake of expressing individuality.
When vintage dressing first began to move from being a strictly subcultural style into the sartorial mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s, writers like Tom Wolfe, Angela Carter and Kennedy Fraser lobbed very similar critiques. Wolfe and Carter saw the middle-class thrift-shopping youth (hippies, in this case) as making a mockery of working-class youth who had to shop the thrift stores (see Angela McRobbie’s excellent essay “Second-hand Dresses and the Ragmarket”). And similar to Christy Wampole’s view, Kennedy Fraser, a former writer for Vogue and The New Yorker, in the 1980 essay “Retro: a Reprise” expressed the view that retro dressing is a failure on the part of young people to engage with their own time and express themselves authentically. In her words:
Clothes came to be worn and seen as an assemblage of thought-out paradoxes, as irony, whimsy or deliberate disguise. Thrift shop dressing carried it all to its ultimate. We took to clothes for which we had spent little money, which didn’t necessarily fit us, and which had belonged in the past in some dead stranger’s life. Behind the bravado of what came to be known as “style,” there may have lurked a fear of being part of our time, of being locked into our own personalities, and of revealing too much about our own lives. (Fraser 1981:238).
Elizabeth McGuffey, author of Retro: the Culture of Revival, is a more recent author who, like Wampole, makes a connection between irony, Western culture’s recent adoration of things past, and social distance.
Retro’s highly self-conscious mix of derision and nostalgia provided a seductive ether, suggesting that history was something to be plundered rather than taken seriously….But it also posited a great divide, marking a cleaving away from the recent past; rather than forming continuity, retro’s nostalgic mockery fueled cultural narcissism. Retro’s translation of recent history into consumable objects suggests how previous periods of popular culture and design can be used to characterize ourselves as distinct from the recent past. p. 159.
One insight I took from reading McGuffey’s book is that when we, as a culture, appropriate looks and objects from the past, it is not an act of sentimental nostalgia of earnestly remembering times past. Instead, it is an ironic act that distances us as a culture from recent decades past (and indeed, even thinking of style as bounded by specific decades is a relatively recent trend). Retro style decontextualizes looks and objects of past material culture, separating them from the aesthetic whole that once defined the era. It does involve distance in some way – either one takes past styles and combines them with current looks that decontextualize them (and thus presents an ironic appearance), or if one completely embraces, say, the 1950s secretary look, then the distance is from one’s own time period.
So, Wampole is not wrong to connect irony, retro dressing and social distance, but it is the level of analysis that is key. McGuffey’s book addresses these connections at the level of culture, not the individuals who consume what culture is available to them. For example, she explains the role that members of the artworld (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) played in making aesthetic styles from the past (Art Nouveau, Art Deco) popular and the role that culture industries (like advertising firms) played in using anachronistic styles to sell products.
This leads me to ask a question: Is wearing clothes and surrounding oneself with objects from the past really a failure to engage with our own age?
I would argue that hipsters – whether or not they are doing it out of irony – are in fact engaging with the present precisely through culling looks and objects of the recent past.
Simon Reynolds, in Retromania makes a compelling case that one of the biggest changes in popular culture over the last 30 years is that the digital age has made the mediated past ever-present – we have easy access to old record albums, books, movies, past tv shows, and even old ads. In fact, Reynolds points out that music industry catalogs for past pop music occupies more market space than new music – it has to; there is more past than present music to sell.
So when so-called hipsters go to a secondhand record shop to buy vinyl or when they make a score at the thrift store, or they think Steve McQueen is cool from streaming his films on Netflix, they are not (just) engaging with the past. They are engaging with their present. This is a present that makes the recent past immediately available to them to mine for “new” looks and sounds, and combines them in different, decontextualized ways.
I can pose a counter question – Is buying new clothing and objects a way to be “authentically” engaged with our own age? Should hipster-ish youth stick to buying clothes at The Gap or American Apparel? Or perhaps L.L. Bean would be more sincere. Should they throw out their “nostalgic” owl pendants and fedoras to languish in closets and drawers or the landfill?
This suggests another way that so-called hipsters are in fact engaged in their own age. Not only is the past their present, but their present is one in which they were brought up with the habit of recycling and creative re-use, of thinking about pollution, of being concerned about the planet. And the pastiche hipster style that mixes past and present does in some minor way, address these concerns.
In conclusion, I believe Wampole correctly recognized a connection between retro style, irony and social distance, but it was a mistake to individualize the tendency and assume that those who sport hipster-ish decontextualized style are disconnected from their own feelings, or the concerns of their own time. Without systematically studying stereotyped hipsters (if they are indeed identifiable as a distinct group), there is, at the most, only anecdotal evidence to believe that there is a correlation between hipster style and apathy. And anecdotally, counter-examples are also easy to find. I have had quite a number of hipster-ish students who have also been among the most politically engaged on our campus, who have been significant advocates of broader gender and sexual expression, and who later seek careers in social justice and social welfare.
- Nancy L. Fischer