A psychological theory of hipster fashion

Maybe the fundamental reason your barista wears a waistcoat is a creeping collective sense that civilisation got derailed in the early 20th century, and we need to restore it to the last known good setting.

Isn’t it remarkable that of all the things that can become popular, young people should opt for handlebar moustaches, suspenders, tweed, bowties, typewriters, vinyl records, electro-swing, sweet summer dresses, hair ribbons and wool stockings?

If my theory is correct, the sentiment is justified.

Realise what world existed just before World War 1: a bright and optimistic cosmopolitan era of unprecedented peace, prosperity and progress. Global trade flourished. Seemingly every day, there was some marvellous new invention. Science got its shit together and entered on an exponential curve – the one thing we still have going, thank goodness. Top tax rates were below 10%. Here’s a shocking graph.

It was easily the best period in human history, certainly up till then. If not ever.

Things were getting better all the time, and nobody expected that to change. Why would it?

Sure, there were dark undercurrents of political radicalism – even terrorism – and tensions between great powers, but people expected them to be contained and eventually resolved.

Then seemingly out of the blue and sparked by a minor incident (though not so minor for Franz Ferdinand) came the unthinkable apocalyptic nightmare of World War 1 and changed everything – a colossal collective trauma humankind hasn’t yet recovered from.

Really, the psychological impact cannot be overstated – WW1 wasn’t merely the biggest war in history, it was a wholly new genre.

Instead of relatively small armies in bright uniforms engaging in highly structured, almost ritualised combat, now whole nations. Trenches running with blood. Tanks. Poison gas.

The gilded song of the old world was replaced by the screams and death rattles of hell on Earth.

Europe was devastated. Germany was a total economic disaster, and so was, for different reasons, Russia.

America was spared the devastation, and still lived in the old psychic world – but even there, the roaring 1920s ended with the Great Depression.

Fascism and communism, two arms of the same underlying reaction against modernity, contended to dominate humanity.

Then came World War 2.

Even where extreme counter-Enlightenment ideologies were (at least for a time) denied, the world wars and economic crisis left behind a legacy of creeping statism, with even America becoming a centrally planned society, if not a form of gentle fascism at the time. Governments, unwilling to rescind the powers entrusted to them in wartime, started eating economies. No longer a service annex, the state became society.

The world wars were an enormous gift to Leviathan, and those who live off him.

That trend is unfortunately unlikely to be reversed, unless technology liberates us in revolutionary ways.

There is a haunting quote I can’t quite source right now, but here’s a paraphrase:
Rather than think of the pre-WW1 world as a dream, it is more accurate to think of the post-WW1 world as a nightmare.

By today’s jaded standards, people in, let’s call it the Belle Epoque, were unrealistically, foolishly optimistic.

Maybe. But you know, here’s the thing – it worked.

Attitudes towards progress are self-fulfilling prophecies:

If you believe in progress, you act on it, and progress happens.

If you believe everything’s shit, or is going to shit, or is pointless, or unfair, or beneath your tremendous pretentious magnificence, then that’s what you disproportionately notice and what, by not doing much meaningful work and signalling your expectations, you get. Shit and pointlessness and unfairness and pretension.

Just visit almost any humanities department.

So here’s what I believe: The Belle Epoque, or whatever you want to call it, the first liberal optimum, had things right. We’re traumatised and broken in ways we’ve come to accept as normal.

Future historians may conclude that modernity did not survive the World Wars – arguably not even the first one. The world, or a world, ended at Ypres, and Verdun, and Gallipoli.

It was a world that got a lot right. Not everything – although more than self-righteous present day critics would concede – but a lot of the big things.

Here’s a fascinating thought experiment, which I heard somewhere, but again, can’t quite source. Peter Thiel? Jordan Peterson? Anyway:

Would you prefer to live in the present, or the 1950s? You probably immediately went with the present. But that choice is probably based mainly on today’s better technology.

Suppose you could choose between today, and a version of the 1950s with today’s technology.

Now, that’s a much harder question.

Because then it stops being about iPads and better dental, and starts being about the values, political structures and culture.

You can use the same logic to compare today with the late 1800s or early 1900s.

It’s meant to illustrate that for all the technological progress, things have gotten mainly worse on a general cultural level in the last 50, and certainly in the last 100 years.

Certainly, nobody would choose today with 1950s technology.

On every metric other than technology, and some marginal issues relating to tolerance (where the west has overshot and is now overcompensating, with militant minorities paradoxically bullying the majority), western civilisation has declined.

If you’re gonna say “but women’s rights”, which you aren’t, because Wisdomination has intelligent readers, you may be delighted to learn those weren’t invented and politicised in the 1960s, but a full century earlier.

In general, most of the social developments we credit recent history with have started and been formalised at the latest in the 19th century, if not with John bleeding Locke in the 17th, and just took some time to come to fruition. The recent social movements have largely appropriated the legacy of classical liberalism, and turned against it and poisoned it with marxism.

All these civilising forces were in motion, and unlike their present day counterparts, they were about uplifting the wretched, not roasting those already doing well. Classical liberalism vs. cultural terrorism.

There’s a tremendous difference between thinking and acting out of compassion or hostility. There’s a difference between wanting to help the poor and wanting to hurt the rich. Ditto for redressing past inequities of sex and race. No, it’s not a zero-sum see-saw. Mutual respect and goodwill is a positive-sum game.

Even without nostalgia and idealisation, it’s hard not to see that on every measure except technology and maaaybe the rights of women and minorities, western civilisation has spent a century declining.

Maybe the sense that the future is hopeful and bright and things are going well, and the world is wide open and full of possibility, to say nothing of a sense of stability and security based in that conservative stuff like family and non-arbitrary gender roles, is what people are intuitively and subconsciously looking for when they “ironically” adopt the affectations of the late Victorian era or the roaring twenties.

Note the style is most popular precisely among the most uprooted urban gadflies. I think it’s not random.

Isn’t the eccentric in tweed breeches on a single-speed bike motivated by the same dynamic that compelled medieval nobles to collect Roman statues, as reminders of a better, more civilised age?

If so, let’s have a renaissance.

I don’t wear tweed, you wear tweed, shut up.

In the deep of our collective unconscious, or whatever you want to call it, we feel that civilisation got fucked up in the early 20th century, that we’ve forgotten something behind, and should go back to pick it up.

P.S. Recommended reading: Winston Churchill’s WW1 memoirs. Shouldn’t take more than three years of reading to go through.

Now, if you care about the future of civilisation, you might consider buying your brilliant enlightening thought leader a beer.

Also accepting bitcoin to undo the statist wave of the 20th century.


  • Zbyněk Dráb
  • gans

    the root problem with such line of argument is past idealization.
    but if you go back to Victorian England what will you find? ‘noble savage’ idea of pre-historic golden time when humanity was free from the corrupting influence of civilization and live in harmony with nature.
    sorry, but that thing was as real as your last 1950 fantasy.

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      Sweet angle.

      “Noble savage” and “original golden age” were precisely the ideas that powered the radical terrorism of the era – there was a section in the draft of the article that I took out for readability and flow of the argument, but here you go:

      “Anarchist terrorists plotted to overthrow societies, perhaps as mere blunt instruments of more deliberate powers, and inspired, if we’re being charitable, by German Idealism and Romanticism, the notion that the subjective is the ultimate truth, that civilization and society are essentially bad, and that human efforts corrupt preexisting abundance and harmony, rather than, as everyone who at least went camping once in their life knows, the mechanisms by which we avoid starving to death and having our whitened bones munched by forest animals, or indeed other humans.

      Soon, the nihilist tendencies overflowed into a whole poisonous stream of regressive philosophies, which came to dominate intellectual life in the early 20th century, and within which nazism, communism, environmentalism and postmodern critical theory are mere minor doctrinal variations and flavourings.

      Ideologies, in other words, that are nothing more than reflections of developmental arrest in the mental world of the toddler.

      Certainly, the shift in intellectual life towards insufferable marxist onanists in turtlenecks has prefigured the nihilist mire hostile to everything strong, good, beautiful, true and successful that has gripped western intellectuals, with notable exceptions, ever since the 1960s.”

      I.e. I see the romanticist, Rousseau-based “noble savage, original purity” idea as the exact problem that won over Enlightenment values in the last decades. It’s a mistaking of the comfort of the uterus –
      the individual psychological history – for a history of the objective world.

      The joke is that those delusions about the pre-civilized state can only be entertained in the prosperity created by the exact opposite mentality, i.e. broadly the Enlightenment, liberal democratic societies and capitalism, and the instrumental, rational, yet humble study of nature and the external world that entails.

      “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed”.

      The late 19th century was driven by the Enlightenment spirit of progress and rationalism, and shared common humanity coming together. Mankind’s rise above the wretchedness of our natural existence. It’s a completely opposite force from the romantics, who either want to wholly yield to, or remake nature and reality, but never learn about it and build around it.

      The essential struggle is between romanticist and enlightenment values, the two being absolute diametrical opposites, and the difference manifesting in basically every political and cultural controversy today.

      In fact, the fantasy of the 1950s – or the 1870s – was exactly that the future is malleable, nature is knowable, and life improvable.

      The opposite mentality that meanwhile won out is “everything is shit”, “rationality is a white male capitalist oppressive construct” and “yiieeeld to the daarknessss go to sleeep dissolve in the chaossss!”.

      That’s atrocious pessimism shaped by the trauma of the world wars.

      • gans

        “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” John Stuart Mill

        it is easy to cherry-pick good or bad deeds, mainstream thoughts, general moods for some epoch or period of time (of course hindsight helps when you know what events follows and just in search for convenient explanation).
        in general, I’m on “Rational Optimist” side:

        There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquillity, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow’s milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.

        Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father’s Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 – not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour’s lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.
        ” Matt Ridley

        so, my answer is ‘no’. given the chance to live at any point in past history I still vote for today. with both hands.

        • Objections at best tangential to the point being made.

          Also completely ignores the “assume comparable technology” element of the thought experiment, which is the point.

          Of course nobody wants a dry toilet. But maybe some people want a nuclear family.

  • Lukáš Lánský

    Well, under the veil of ignorance in which part of the world I’m going to live and what race I’m born to, I would definitely not choose 1950, even with today’s tech. I guess that for white Americans it was a nicer time — but come on. They suffer because their post-WW2 head-start is no longer there and artificial barriers in both international trade and local labor markets were unblocked in meantime by their elites. That’s a just outcome from the libertarian point of view.

    I think that the main objection against pre-WW1 nostalgia is that the war wasn’t some random catastrophe that happened to the world, but a result of power mechanisms of the time. You can’t have big disconnect between high status elites and majority of poor people and hope that stupid wars with big casualties won’t happen.

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      WW1 was pretty much a family feud between the fantastically intermarried European royals. Franz Ferdinand was seen as a liberal reformer who had to go, and the crumbs of the assassination kinda lead to Kaiser Wilhelm II., who hated his British ancestors with a passion, and has also been proven beyond reasonable doubt to have deployed and paid Lenin. Those two dick moves easily win him the title of worst person in human history.

      Social inequality might have been powering the radical anarchist elements of the time, but where they actually achieved anything – as in Sarajevo – they acted on behalf of much more deliberate masters with very different plans.

      A lesson we will do well to remember as social unrest ferments again.

      No disagreement about the racial element of the olden days being easily its worst failing. I think I mentioned that in the article. It’s pretty important to separate the bad bits from any nostalgia, and not perpetrate them – I notice some people who, unlike the hipsters’ stealth and largely unconscious approach, openly pine for the good old days are pining for the whole package including racial segregation and subjection of women, which is 1) going too far and 2) making any argument that there was also something tremendously healthy back then (as I’m suggesting) more difficult to get across, because immediately it’s possible to answer with “so you hate black people and want colonialism and women in the kitchen”, which is hardly the point.