The Wordsmith

From Zazous to Hipsters

France is once again witnessing the advent of a new social phenomenon that began in the United States. After taking over the streets of Brooklyn and the East Village, the hipsters have arrived in Paris. And Berlin, London and other European capitals are experiencing the same trend.
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The members of this subculture can be spotted a mile off, sporting thick-framed glasses, tattoos, full beards and moustaches, checked shirts for men and long skirts for women. It should however be noted that the term “hipster” is not new. It first appeared in the United States in the 1940s, and was then used to describe young, White jazz fans who dressed like and socialized with African American musicians. The hipsters of 2015 are a slightly different breed. While they get around on bicycles (fixed-gear, of course) and eat organic, they are also avid entrepreneurs with a knack for founding start-ups.

One socio-type is inevitably replaced by another. Bobo was the word on everyone’s lips in France from the early 21st century. This portmanteau term formed by combining the words bourgeois and bohème was used for the first time in 2000 by American journalist David Brooks. More than a social category, it defined a lifestyle centered on ecology and progressive attitudes on social issues. This outlook did not however prevent bobos – seen by many as another form of Champagne socialists – from fully enjoying the advantages of the market economy.

To every era its subculture. The 1960s saw the rise of the hippies – a word that may well share its etymology with the hipsters. Both seem derive from the Wolof word hipi, which means “to open one’s eyes”, and also gave us the term “hip-hop.” Hippies were not just about long hair, smoking weed, and sporting flower-power shirts. Their values included a rejection of modern society, pacifism, and sexual freedom, which represented a major split from the values upheld by previous generations.

The hippie phenomenon has left its mark, which is more than can be said for other subcultures popping up here and there, tied to specific dress codes and musical genres. Examples include leather jackets, whose appearance in France in the late 1950s accompanied the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll music imported from the United States. This phenomenon was embodied in Britain during the same period by mods and rockers, whose rivalries often led to violence. From beatniks to skinheads to bikers, there is a long list of generational subcultures. No one can forget the punks, whose provocative style enjoyed its moment of glory in the late 1970s.

Going further back in time, the French Directory of 1795 saw its gilded youth adopt a fashion trend characterized by its extravagance. The members of this new subculture were called the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses for men and women respectively, and were a sort of antithesis of the sans-culottes of the Revolution. Their outfits flouted common sense and were an insult to good taste. A less circumstantial phenomenon was born in Britain around the same time. Cultivating their elegance to and sophistication, dandies took as much care of how they spoke as how they dressed. Dandyism made its way into French Romanticism in the 19st century, and writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam were proud members of this subculture.

Again in France, the zazous appeared a few decades later. The term was taken from a jazz piece called “Zah Zuh Zaz” recorded by Cab Calloway in 1933. A section of the French youth once again adopted a dress code in an expression of its non-conformism. They were easily recognizable by their Anglo-American-inspired clothes, sporting baggy checked jackets and a closed umbrella held under the arm for men. Born of a rebellion against rules imposed by the Vichy Regime, zazous were forced to keep a low profile during the Occupation, but were center stage after the Liberation. Wherever and whenever, the same paradox repeats itself. Marginalized groups become fashionable as the years go by, and some of their characteristics are appropriated by the very society they were trying to stand out from.

But it seems the hipsters’ days are already numbered. A new socio-type is taking root in the United States. Yuccies (young urban creatives) are a new subculture combining certain hipster characteristics with those of yuppies, the emblematic figures of the most brutal form of financial capitalism who were ubiquitous in the 1980s. It has to be said that in the United States, business sense will out.


Article published in the November 2015 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

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