If you head to London’s Dalston or NYC’s Williamsburg you’ll be sure to see dudes with beards wearing Wayfarers and riding fixie bikes with their long-haired girlfriends walking their dachshund nearby.

Hipsters are the latest urban subculture that’s swept across the globe from Berlin to Melbourne, yet hipsters are not a new phenomenon. Starting out in the early Forties, jazz fans – especially followers of bebop – were referred to as hipsters or hepcats. They were known for their cutting edge dress style, their easy attitute to sex and their love for getting high. Who were these original hipsters? And did they really live the prototypical sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle long before rock’n’roll was invented?

The words ‘hep’ and ‘hip’ both emerged in the US jazz scene during the Thirties, originally meaning ‘in the know’, used to describe those part of the scene or real fans of jazz who knew about the music and its musicians. In 1939  Cab Calloway published his Hepster’s Dictionary, which defines hep cat as “a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive”. Similarly hipsters were defined as “characters who like hot jazz.”

By the beginning of the Forties, young white kids began to seek out the underground jazz scene, breaking away from the white mainstream with its racial segregation and strict moral attitude towards sex. Their idols were bebop pioneers – sax player Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, pianist Thelonios Monk and trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie.

With their dark-rimmed glasses, trademark berets and pinstripe suits, the sartorial impact of the these jazz men was enormous. Their style of dress was aspirational, cool and confident. Unlike the swing entertainers of the Thirties in their zoot suits, the bebop pioneers saw themselves as serious artists, as intellectuals with cultural and political opinions, and this attitude translated into their look. Just like their music, their style was subcultural, outside of and opposed to the current system.

Perhaps for the first time ever, a look that was African-American of origin transcended into white American culture. Although never mainstream, it influenced the intellectual bohemians, the young artists and writers who would become known as the Beats in the Fifties.

Unlike today’s hipsters, the hep cats of the Forties wore their shades without a hint of irony, they smoked joints and hung out in tiny jazz clubs because they felt sure there had to be more to life than the post-war American dream of a house in the burbs and a dull but safe job for life. It wasn’t until the Fifties, when white rock’n’roll stars like Elvis translated this ennui and nagging boredom into a  – far less political – attitude that was adopted by teenagers across the globe.

Today, the hep cat styles is an often forgotten subculture, but if you’ve ever worn a beret and dark-rimmed glasses or paired a neckerchief with your shirt, you’ve referenced the original hipsters of the Forties.

Diz

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