Festival: From Counterculture to Mainstream

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Festival: From Counterculture to Mainstream

It’s festival season, which means the stress of curating your own idyllic festival experience, or, for the more introverted, hibernating until the fall when this festival business will finally pass until next summer. Regardless of whether you’re one of the 23% of Americans who went to a festival last year, a jaded former attendee who now thinks festivals are dead, or, one of the many Americans who have never attended a music festival, the steady rise of festival culture as a mainstay of summer and a discourse on youth and American cultural practice is a fascinating one (McDermott). Just what about the here and now makes festivals such a thing? Is it generational, a symptom of rampant commercialism, or an indicator of an increasingly stratified social class in America? Either way, with social media and fashion/beauty brands thrusting festival aesthetics in front of consumers, it’s hard to escape the festival scene, even if one has no interest. The modern festival has transcended the counterculture that birthed American music festivals in the 1960’s and become a part of the mainstream of American life.

Check out our festival fashion looks in our April Lookbook below!

Festivals Past

In America, we often credit Woodstock as the beginning of festival culture, but festivals are more than a recent fad or an attempt to recapture the glory days of the past, they are actually an intrinsic part of human culture. One of first festivals, the Pythian Games in Greece, occurred around the 6th century BC. The festival featured musical competitions as well physical feats (Miotti). Festivals were soon synonymous with the harvest and often included music. This association may explain why the word festival (which first appeared in English in the 16th century), is derived from the word “feast” (Miotti). America can credit Europe for our more modern ideas of music festivals, as high society often got together for classical music, classes, and the celebration of ideological thought. The Glastonbury Festival was one such festival. It took place from 1914-1925, and though it shares a name with the modern Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts, they are two different festivals (Utopia Britannica). One of the first outdoor music festivals in America was the Newport Jazz Festival organized in 1954 by jazz pianist George Wein and funded by socialite Elaine Lorillard. The festival hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, among others (Broziac), and is still in operation. By the 60’s, there were other festivals besides Woodstock, like the Monterey International Pop Festival, or the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in 1967 (Broziac, Clark). More festivals emulating 60’s counterculture popped up after these successes. Then, in August 1969, came Woodstock. Unfortunately, such success seemed to be the last hurrah of the decade. Four months after Woodstock, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, which its organizers hoped would become a Woodstock of the West, ended tragically with extensive property damage, 3 accidental deaths, and the outright murder of festival attendee Meredith Hunter after a violent altercation captured by The Rolling Stones film crew (Clark). This led to a long stretch (from 1969 to 1991) when festivals struggled to get off the ground due to public opinion of festivals as a public nuisance (Clark).

Festivals faced a new set of challenges during the 70’s with many festival organizers interested in capitalizing on past Woodstock success. Often, organizers were looking only for financial gain, while others, backed by big corporations like the Warner Bros. Records, were accused of introducing commercialization and corporate money, something which was off-putting to festival attendees (Clark). In addition to this, the costs to book good talent was also increasing, making it expensive to put on a festival. Powder Ridge, the 1970’s equivalent to the more recent Fyre Festival fail, served as the cumulation of these issues. Plagued with problems from the beginning, Powder Ridge suffered from an injunction prohibiting the festival to continue, which the organizers failed to get lifted. Even so, they continued to sell tickets and people still went (Clark). Frustration ran high with thousands of fans waiting for a three-day lineup and getting only one performance and several local bands (Clark). While there were other festivals in the 70’s, Powder Ridge exemplified the waning cultural significance of 60’s festival culture and subsequent festivals were viewed as boring and lacking the pizazz of festivals past (Clark).

It was not until the 1990’s that festivals once again found a place as a zeitgeist of social consciousness. The recent steady rise of festival culture that gave birth to Coachella, Burning Man, and Bonnaroo, among others, came about with the success of Lollapalooza. This festival was able to capitalize on a new form of discontent happening in the 90’s where stresses related to AIDS, environmentalism, and a bleak economic outlook set the stage for a communal need to head bang (Clark). This trend has only grown, ushering in an unprecedented number of festivals across America (over 150 in 2018) as well as festivals globally (which proliferated during the 70’s unlike in America) (Clark, Brozic). As the stress for young people continues to grow, with environmental concerns, political uncertainty, and mounting social and ethnic divides, music festivals seem to be that one place where humanity can come together through music.

Festival: From Counterculture to Mainstream- Festival fashion 2019 All black glitter kimono- Always Uttori

Gather ‘Round the Stage

In an increasingly fragmented consumer market, festivals seem to be one of the few cultural practices that taps into the ever-elusive Millennial and Gen Z demographics. Beyond the frequently cited experience economy, music festivals speak to a wide range of affinity categories including music lovers, fashionistas, tech gurus, food and travel junkies, influencers, and celebrities; festivals represent a societal and cultural melting pot. In addition to the wide appeal, festivals offer a sense of fun and escape. A 2017 study found that people who go to communal music events (including music festivals and clubs) regularly report being happier than those who don’t go to those types of events (O’Neill). The communal element is a key component to the boost in happiness. It is one-part experience and one-part feedback loop. The experience is shared enjoyment of the music. The enjoyment felt by the festival attendees is then boosted and amplified across the group. Moreover, according to Roxy Robinson in her book, Music Festivals and the Politics of Participation, participation in festivals acts as an idealized socio-cultural experience that transcends the festival itself. The experiences reflect social customs that are created through the communal event space and shared participation ideals (Robinson).

It should be noted that there are many types of festivals, some of which are more focused on celebrating political and social values, and/or ideologies. With this in mind, the types of festivals that foster transcendent idealization often fit several criteria as identified by Everfest, an online festival community. The so-called “Fest Test” states that festivals are fun and have an element of discovery; they are multi-dimensional with various activities and encourage participation; they include anyone with the means to attend and do not discriminate; they must take place in the physical world therefore promoting human connection; and finally, they should stand the test of time, i.e. reoccur (Miotti).

While some festivals focus more on political and ideological values, most organizers for the larger festivals would say that they meet the criteria set forth by Everset. They appeal to a wide range of people, the are intended to be fun, and the participation size makes the communal feedback strong. Even so, the festival marketspace continues to grow, and people continue to not only put a lot of energy into attending, but also spend thousands of dollars to go. What is it about the human psyche that has sustained such a large number of festivals around the world? Unfortunately, academic and quantitative research on festival motivation is lacking, but Professor of Cultural Studies at Salford University, George McKay, describes festivals as being closely related to carnival traditions (Robinson; Miotti). A carnival’s purpose was to “invert everyday expectations of normal behavior” (Miotti). Therefore, despite the lack of quantitative evidence, qualitative and anecdotal evidence would suggest that similar to the discontent that made festivals popular in the 60’s, modern festivals offer a sense of escape from reality and the ability to “subvert the rules” (Miotti). For Millennials and Gen Z, festivals act as an escapist alter ego, one free of stressful jobs, college applications, #adulting, and a whole list of external stressors. In an effort to escape real life, festival goers will not only spend money on getting to the festival of choice, but also dressing the part. This reoccurring event is one that offers a scheduled oasis, a moment to recharge and the space to create an unforgettable, idealized social experience.

Festival: From Counterculture to Mainstream- Festival fashion 2019 Pink Shirt and glitter pants- Always Uttori

Festival Fashion and the 5th Season

It is impossible to discuss festivals without discussing fashion, and to some extent, beauty. Fashion and beauty have become synonymous with festivals, creating a whole new category of fashion, or a 5th fashion season as Vogue Australia proclaimed in 2018. This new fashion season is nestled between spring and fall collections. Rebecca Minkoff, who began doing festival collections after attending a festival and seeing thousands of her designs on attendees, likened the festival season to the Super Bowl for fashion (Holmes 2018). Brands with aesthetics that easily transitioned to fill the growing market have described the phenomena as being like the holiday season for other retailers (Holmes). Unfortunately, as this is a recent trend, the overall market impact has yet to be captured, but retailers who cater to these consumers say that the market is large and is continuing to grow (Holmes).

Presently, festival fashion staples include bohemian crop tops, cut-off jean shorts, t-shirts, fringe, crossbody bags, Wellington boots, and maybe some glitter for good measure. In many ways, the staples of festival fashion have become formulaic, creating a “festival uniform” that many in fashion agree needs to go. The “uniform” harkens back to 2004 when model Kate Moss (who is largely considered the architect of the modern festival uniform) wore several variations of the previously stated staples as well as a black sundress with a studded belt, Uggs, and neon aviators to Glastonbury (Tashjian). As Rachel Tashjian describes, “[i]t was a combination of sloppy garments and accessories that looked somehow pristinely pulled together—and thus became the ethos of what we consider “festival dressing.” While a festival uniform seems to be the antithesis of the meaning of festival, the uniform was born from an attempt to recall festivals past, particularly Woodstock. For this reason, it should be no surprise that festival fashion has become almost formulaic. As Jean Baudrillard states in Fashion, or the Enchanting Spectacle of the Code, “[t]oday, every principle of identity is affected by fashion, precisely because of its potential to revert all forms to non-origin and recurrence. Fashion is always retro, but always on the basis of the abolition of the past: the spectral death and resurrection of forms” (pg. 463).  Festival fashion is often a direct reference to the styles of bohemian and 70’s fashions prevalent at Woodstock; however, for people who attended Woodstock, the clothes were more of an expression of their daily reality. This contemporary reenactment is more a symptom of rampant modernism in which technological advancements have homogenized many of the cultural aspects which once differentiated people, especially through fashion. As Kurt Back says in Modernism and Fashion, “[f]ashion in the modernistic period had a role in the crisis of the individual in the transition from tightly structured society to a mass society. It extended the ability of the individual for self-expression without social guidance, by making it possible to assert only some areas of the self and not the self as integrated into social matrix” (405). Although Back is speaking to the modern era in general, we can apply this idea of modernity to the festival timeline as well. While festivals had their revival in the 1990’s, it is only recently that they have returned to the mass consciousness, a heralding of modern stabilization of festivals into society. As Vulture puts it, “[o]ver the next few years, we’re likely to bear witness to fond remembrances and supersized celebrations as some of the biggest North American music festivals achieve a point of longevity meriting acknowledgment. Coachella unofficially turns 20 this year…Bonnaroo will turn 20 in 2022, while Woodstock stands to celebrate…three anniversaries this year, ringing in 50th, 25th, and 20th anniversaries for its respective installments” (Fitzmaurice, 2019). In this way, the homogenous festival uniform is merely an expression of this new-found modernization of the festival as Back explains further, “[f]ashion because of its widespread visibility, can be a good indicator of the kind of stabilization which might occur. One may watch for indicators in this area: homogeneity of clothing by occasion becomes important with less assertion of personality…” (406).

Urban Unicorn Mermaid is as far from “Me” as Can Be

Beyond being an indicator of society’s embrace of the festival as a modern social practice, fashion is also an expression of identity.  Yet, festival fashion can subjugate identity to the dual conceits of fantasy and escapism. While fashion editors complain about festival’s homogenized fashion, festival goers see these so called “clichés” as a way to express a shift from the everyday. Festival fashion: The six cliché looks you won’t be able to avoid this summer, names the clichés as: casual cultural appropriation, flower crowns, excessive fringe, unnecessary wellies (i.e. when it’s not raining and hot), gallons of glitter, and tie dye (Barr, 2018). Clichés they may be, but as Rosetta Brookes explains in her discussion of fashion photography, “…recent forms of revivalism are… more romantic nostalgias for some ‘essence’—peasant life or primitivism of the late 1960s…” Fashion can easily be tied to the human psyche and as young generations use festivals as a way to escape reality, then it makes sense why the festival fashion uniform has become a romanticized character of itself. This festival character is easily recognizable and represents a shared understanding for the masses to recognize and connect to.

There is one other important reason festival fashion has become uniform. Brookes says,“[n]ostalgic attachments to the immediate past become an attachment to the process of turnover, a narcissistic identification with the alien qualities of ones’ own past” (525). Whether it is narcissistic to identify with the foreign parts of the past, the fascination with the past and with histories not our own has led to another common festival faux pas – cultural appropriation. As Rachel Tashjian explains in A History of Festival Style—and How Beyoncé Just Changed It Forever, “this desire for a society outside of this one also means that many festival attendees have taken this as an opportunity to embody the “exotic other”—it’s why the mid-aughts were filled with festival images of women in Native American headdresses. We get dressed to connect to a past that we weren’t a part of but want to pretend we were, or to connect to one that never actually existed…” There is a thin line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. As cultural symbols get absorbed into the mass market, appropriation is often an innocent and understandable desire. In the context of festivals and the inversion of reality, adding a bindi, wearing a kimono, or painting your face with African tribal dots seems like a way to add to the fantasy and be someone completely different. However, as Alisha Acquaye explains in her article, What Coachella and Music Festivals Are Like as a Woman of Color, “[t]his entitlement to wear another’s culture for fashion and fantasy — especially a culture that is teased or degraded when wearing those same things — perpetuates the idea that festivals are an acceptable time to step out of one’s reality.” For women of color festivals are often a time for them to express their personal identity, but as festival uniforms have taken center stage, mass adoption of alien or “other” fantasy and escapism have been widespread, perpetuated by social media and celebrity’s casual adoption of the styles. While there is plenty to complain about in terms of the festival uniform and its inherent problems, there is a growing shift within the marketplace. As festivals become more niche, festival fashion has begun to diverge from mass market to conform more closely to personal identity. Fashion, like the festivals one attends, is transitioning to become a full embodiment of one’s true identity, representative of their interests and inner life in a visual way. International festivals like AfroPunk (with locations in France, UK, South Africa, and US) and foreign festivals like Clockenflap in Hong Kong are also influencing fashion with fresh takes, global perspectives, and more niche styles. Finally, as fashion trends shift so too will the festival uniforms. Streetwear is an increasingly large part of the fashion market and is already changing festival wear.

Festival: From Counterculture to Mainstream- Festival fashion 2019 Pink fur dress - Always Uttori

The Future of Festival

So where do festivals go from here? Festivals have reached maturity in the market place and have become ingrained in pop culture but, with this rise in social consciousness, some might say that festivals have hit critical mass. Over the past two to three years, there have been an increase in articles proclaiming festivals are boring, not worth going to, and not the same. Not only is the fashion homogenous, but so too are the musical lineups. Now it hardly matters whether you see Childish Gambino at Coachella or Bonnaroo. And, it opens the door to many different questions: How many festivals are too many if the lineups are all the same? How many festivals do we really need? Is escaping reality really enough motivation to keep the festival craze going, especially as festivals begin to stream their music shows? Will festivals continue to be forces of cultural power like they have been over the last few years? Only time can answer these questions, but with the amount of money going into festivals, it seems that, at least for now, the amount of commercialized money will keep festivals going for a little bit longer. Beyond the mainstream, however, the rise in the popularity of festivals speaks to a broader cultural undercurrent – one of yearning for an escape into good music, into fantasy, and into a simpler time, a time that may not have existed in reality, but in which we were all free to share in each other’s joy.

References and Resources

“Glastonbury the First Time.” Utopia Britannica. http://www.utopiabritannica.org.uk/pages/Glastonbury.htm

Brozic, Ashley. “Beyond Woodstock: The Evolution Of Music Festivals.” Vix.  https://www.vix.com/en/ovs/listenup/57633/beyond-woodstock-the-evolution-of-music-festivals

McDermott, Maeve. “America’s biggest music festivals are more skippable than ever.” USA Today. March 25, 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2019/03/25/americas-biggest-music-festivals-more-skippable-than-ever/3237097002/

Clark, Tyler. “Why Did American Music Festivals Almost Disappear in the 1970s and ’80s?” Consequence of Sound. July 18, 2018. https://consequenceofsound.net/2018/07/american-music-festivals-1970s-and-1980s/

Miotti, Mario. “The History of Music Festivals.” Sparked Magazine. May 20, 2017. https://www.sparkedmag.com/history-music-festivals/

O’Neill, Lauren. “Science Says Regularly Attending Concerts Makes You Happier.” Vice. September 1, 2017. https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/wjjywn/science-says-regularly-attending-concerts-makes-you-happier

Robinson, Roxy. “Music Festivals and the Politics of Participation (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series).” Routledge. April 26, 2016. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Festivals-Politics-Participation-Ashgate-Popular-ebook/dp/B01EYWP2VQ/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0

Holmes, Elizabeth. “How summer festivals became fashion’s ‘fifth season’.” Vouge Australia. April 28, 2018. https://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/trends/how-summer-festivals-became-fashions-fifth-season/news-story/5fe1e2ab5786f573f6d70dffe11b996e

Tashjian, Rachel. “A History of Festival Style—and How Beyoncé Just Changed It Forever.” Vice. April 17, 2018. https://garage.vice.com/en_us/article/a3yqez/beyonce-coachella-style

Back, Kurt. “Modernism and Fashion.” In Banard Malcome (Ed.) Fashion Theory: A Reader (405-406). Routledge. 2007.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Fashion, or the Enchanting Spectacle of the Code.In Banard Malcome (Ed.) Fashion Theory: A Reader (462-474). Routledge. 2007.

Brookes, Rosetta. “Fashion Photography.” In Banard Malcome (Ed.) Fashion Theory: A Reader (520-526). Routledge. 2007.

Fitzmaurice, Larry. “Where Do Music Festivals Go Now?” Vulture. 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/01/where-do-music-festivals-go-now.html