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!
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
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
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
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
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
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