Mipsters: What’s All the Hype About?
Do hijabi, hipster-clad girls bring something new to urban space?
'Mipsters are the new black': That is fashion language for breaking news. A music video produced in USA in 2013 by Abbas Rattani shows three young Muslim women with hijabs singing “I am a mipster” while taking selfies and eating ice cream while balancing on skateboards. The director of the video wanted the video to work as a biography of this kind of young Muslim women. The term ‘mipsters’ was invented in 2012 by a group of friends in New York who made the hashtag #mipsterz as a way of forging their own identity. Mipsters are Muslim hipsters. They are urban 20-somethings that are embracing Islam and celebrating the diversity of multiple belongings, visualized through their choice of attire.
Visual Power in Tøyen
Aesthetics is the angle and entrance to my field of study, Fashion and Society. In my master’s thesis I wanted to explore the power of clothes in terms of authority: For instance, how can clothes make claims on an urban space? Tøyen is a part of the city centre in Oslo, and is famous for being an ethnically diverse enclave, reminiscent of London’s Brick Lane but on a much smaller scale. This urban space is rapidly changing and Tøyen is said to be in a gentrification process, and I found that this would make a good starting point to look at clothes from. A gentrification process is often very visual, because the young people who move into an area tend to stand out with their looks, just because they look different from the ones who normally live in the area. This is what I call visual power. It is the clothes and the fashion which makes that possible. It is power simply because by the new-comer’s gentrified presence, they show that they claim ownership of the area. Their visual presence is simultaneous to housing prices going through the roof. It is therefore easy to imagine that some of the original inhabitants of this urban space will feel excluded in this gentrification process.
I did my visual ethnography at Postkontoret (The Post Office), which is a cafe that was opened last year by a hipster crowd who recently moved their business to Tøyen. The café was an instant success, and is referred to as the `the Post Office effect` when locals mean to say that Tøyen is changing its content and kind of crowd. From my field of study I wanted to explore this visually, through clothes.
Visual ethnography helped me log and analyze what I observed. Visual ethnography is a process of creating and showing knowledge based on the ethnographer’s own experience and observation, using drawing, photography or sound as tools for collecting information. I used drawing as my tool of note-taking. I designed registration forms to record my observations and drawings. I took note of every kind of garment I saw, and what colour it had. For example: Coat, grey. Scarf, red. And so on. I observed people and their garments in Tøyen square for half an hour at a time, five times a week, for two months. I would observe for half an hour inside Postkontoret café, and then I would sit and observe people in the square from my perfect view point staring out the window to the square itself, for the next half hour.
It was surprising to observe that people mostly look the same from the neck and down. It was the hijab that was the biggest difference between women. The other striking finding was that the presence of hijabs was virtually non existant inside Postkontoret café. My aim was to look for where I could see a change or something new in the urban space, and the young hijabi girls in the square caught my attention. Up until then I had been mostly focusing on the visual statement I thought the hipsters opening new bars were making. I confess that on a personal level, I was in fact a little upset about the new bars and their visual impact on the space. Through the visual ethnography my eyes made new discoveries which drew my attention elsewhere. By actually drawing the clothes I saw, I was able to see and record the visual expressions that were actually there in the square. That’s how I saw the young Muslim girls, with a proud attitude, looking very much like fashionistas – occupying the space. I know that some of the women who use hijab in a combination, and in a fashionable style, together with western fashion clothes, call them selves hijabista(s). Mipsters take fashion in a slightly different direction, more in the direction of a hipster. With super cool new Nike shoes, a long black skirt, a black biker leather jacket, and a Fjällreven backpack, the girl in front of me at Tøyen Metro Station on the very last day of my fieldwork, personified and confirmed my notion of a new visual presence and look.
However, the hipster fashion does not include hijabs as far as I know. Hipsters do not have any specific agenda that screams future, or change. Instead, they are as a group rather identical, with lumberjack shirts, black skinny jeans, beards and tote bags from art exhibitions. Hipsters embrace the retro style, the style of their parents, and everything artisan and ecological, as a trend.. Old days are better, it seems, and that makes the hipster culture sentimental and nostalgic. In my analysis, there will be no crossroad or new direction with the hipsters. And, the style has become commercial too, so the original hipster, who saw the day of light in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York just after the millennium, is now everywhere. ’Real’ hipsters don’t call themselves hipsters, because if they do, they are not a hipster.
Modest fashion, sometimes addressed as Muslim fashion, is an overlooked part of fashion. Girls in skinny black jeans, sneakers and hijab are silhouettes that claim space in modern city life in Western countries. In the urban city landscape of Oslo this look has not been taken into account by the media fashionistas, who largely create the definition of what’s hot or not, and most importantly, where a look is hot. Tøyen is an area which has been written about in the media a lot, often in reference to how cool the urban space is becoming, because of the new hipster bars opening there. Still, from a visual and fashion point of view, Tøyen matters.
The cross-cultural fashion I found of hijab in combination with the black skinny jeans and fancy sneakers points to similar findings done in the UK. That young Muslim women veil themselves, when their parents most likely did not use hijab. I could not help to think: this is an act no one is talking about in the light of a gentrification process. To use hijab as both fashion statement and modest clothing simultaneously can be considered an act of opposition directed at the contemporary mainstream hipster culture and a protest against the parents’ generation who took the hijab off. In this context using hijab in Norway and Western countries can be interpreted as a subculture, which by definition is a counter culture against the establishment. This is of course only one interpretation but it is supported by, research done in the UK, which has a much longer history with a multicultural society.
Clothes make us social. Everyone has to wear clothes, if they step out into public space. Generally we are not allowed to not wear clothes. So if you think clothes are crap, or vain, or utterly unimportant, they still have to be worn. And even if you think clothes make you look absolute fabulous, are totally addicted to fashion and use them for showing off to your peers, they are still just pieces of textile sewn together with a thread. Clothes are part of a growing visual culture. Increasingly, we are expected to read signs instead of letters. It is my belief that the ability to read each other through clothes is a skill to learn, and even more so, be aware of how much we actually already do that. Think for example about priests, doctors and a king’s crown. And in fairy tales, the invisible robe, the super hero cape. The list is long. And hijab in 2016 is a strong visual image. Hijab makes Muslim women hyper visual. Being read through a hijab makes possibly the most visual statement you can achieve nowadays. But it is not possible to read one another if we don’t know the nuances that clothes and fashion are and can be. Clothes are the textile put on physically. Fashion is all the projection put on to a garment. There is no fashion without clothes, and there are no clothes without the human being.
Drawing A Vision
The group of young urban Tøyenites with hijab and skinny jeans I observed in Tøyen, resembled in my view the mipsters from USA. As my master program has a practical aesthetic approach to research, I chose to draw what I thought I had seen the outline of. In drawings everything can happen, it does not necessarily have to be an imitation of reality, it can be a vision of what I saw. So I drew mipsters as a cross-over between hijabi girls and punks.
Based on my observations, I concluded that, yes, it is absolutely possible to read the change taking place in urban city development in Tøyen in Oslo through clothes and fashion. Because a piece of textile sewn together with thread is very seldom only a piece of cloth. The dressed body is an active body with agency. I expect agency to come from the forward-looking mipsters, rather than from the nostalgic hipster culture. In my view mipster girls, through their choice of garments, demand to be heard without being projected with all kinds of prejudice. My study illustrates that mipsters claim space and recognition, through the visual expressions they make in urban space.