This weekend, thousands of concertgoers are flocking
to the Coachella music festival, and, they are, once again, turning the California desert into a pulsing mass of fringe, suede and macramé.
Check your Instagram or Facebook feed over the next several days, and you’re bound to catch a glimpse of these nouveau flower-children. Maybe Gigi Hadid will be seen grooving in a tassled poncho layered over an embroidered bralette. Maybe paparazzi will snap Kylie Jenner pairing studded cowboy boots with a crown of flowers and a whimsical wig. Or maybe your cool friend from college will post a snap of herself dancing in the Mojave Tent in a knee-grazing open-weave caftan.
It’s an aesthetic that’s come to be known as “festival style,” and, somehow, it’s become the millennial uniform
for going to outdoor concerts.
These looks are not just ’70s-inspired; in many cases, they are practically costumes, looks intended to come across as easy-breezy mellow as an Eagles groupie circa 1974 — yet so deliberately styled you can’t possibly imagine them being worn to the grocery store or on a Starbucks run. (Okay, fine, maybe you could imagine Vanessa Hudgens wearing them for those purposes. But she’s an outlier.)
Hitting up the muddy, sun-drenched fields of Great Stage Park, Tenn., this summer for Bonnaroo? Perhaps you’re girding for the elements by packing some thigh-high faux-suede boots and a wide-brimmed hat, like Ali MacGraw at the height of her powers.
Going to Lollapalooza to catch Future, the Atlanta rapper whose Auto-Tune singalongs are a world apart from the psychedelic rockers of Woodstock? No matter. You’ll still probably wear a paisley-print romper and Janis Joplin sunglasses.
Come on, kids! Isn’t it time to move on from a look that has become a cliche — at best, boring, and at worst, desperate?
Festival style may once have been the dominion of a niche group of tastemakers. But ever since a photo of Kate Moss wearing micro-shorts with Wellies at the 2005 Glastonbury Festival triggered a rush on rubber boots, the corporate overlords of the garment trade have been contriving to dress a mass audience for such occasions.
Just check out the websites of some of the biggest names in retail: Big-box chain Target has a festival style page hawking $19.99 gauze pants and a $22.99 peasant top. Coach, bastion of office-appropriate leather goods, is trumpeting $695 saddle bags and $795 ditsy-print dresses as festival-ready. Teva, Levi’s, Topshop and others are also trying to sell you festival looks.
Retailers have plenty of reason to throw fuel on the festival-fashion fire: The apparel industry has been struggling with weak sales, arguably a consequence of a decade of stagnant trends — as long as skinny jeans stay in vogue, who needs to buy new denim? Festival style offers brands a vehicle to try to sell you something that looks different.
With the arrival of festival season, they are stocking their shelves with certain pieces that have become a cliche of concert style: According to fashion analytics firm Edited, there was a 2.8 percent increase in crochet tops introduced to the e-commerce market in the last two weeks compared to the previous two weeks. There were 33 percent more fringe vests introduced, 9 percent more crop tops and 13 percent more dungarees.
Fashion magazines and bloggers feed the notion that music festivals have an unspoken dress code. There are features on how to artfully stack your pile of festival bangles, and how to create “messy-sexy braids” that will still look cute after a couple of days without showering. “Forget Fringe!” a Vogue headline declared this week: “Your Coachella look needs pom-poms.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how we got here. Certainly, there has been a wider resurgence in bohemian fashion. Shades of camel and cognac have been hot recently, and flare and wide-leg trousers appear to be on the cusp of a comeback.
But festival style goes far beyond taking subtle cues from the ’70s. A bucket bag with a little fringe trim no longer seems to be enough — now, we’re shelling out for floor-skimming fringe skirts and adhesive face gems that beg for attention.
You could argue that there’s something about an outdoor music show that makes us nostalgic for the grandaddy of the format, Woodstock, which dwells in our collective imagination as a symbol of youth, freedom and sensuality. But today’s festivals claim a far more sprawling and wide-ranging roster of performers than the landmark 1969 concert. If we don’t feel the need to emulate Woodstock with the sound of the music, why can’t we stop doing it with the clothes?
Of course, the rise of festival style has come at the same time that we are spending more time glued to Twitter, Snapchat and perhaps most crucially, Instagram. We’re not only bombarded with enviable images of halter-topped celebrities frolicking in the mud and sun; we’re using these apps to telegraph something about our own lifestyle — to portray ourselves as the sort of vibrant, adventurous person who might be brave enough to don a crochet bikini and denim hot pants.
Social media has ensured we can’t escape the siren call of festival style — and also gives us a platform to prove that we’re in the know about it.
But here’s the irony: In recent years, younger millennials have abandoned once-popular logo brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Aeropostale, deeming the look tired and formulaic. They want to stand out, not fit in.
By jumping on the festival style bandwagon, though, they’ve just chosen a formula of a different kind. Let’s face it: Festival style is about as unoriginal as it gets.
And frankly, it’s kind of illogical: In theory, you bought a ticket to a concert so you could enjoy some music, some beer, and, if things go especially well, maybe some tipsy dancing with an attractive stranger. Why should you have to dress like anyone but yourself to do that? And isn’t it a little uncool to look like you spent so much time on your outfit?
Full disclosure: I wore a rhinestone-encrusted Esprit tank top to a Nelly concert in high school, because, hey, the bling seemed much more appropriate than my one of my numerous Gap V-neck fleeces. Nothing wrong with dressing for the occasion; nothing wrong with reaching for a little flair.
But festival style, ostensibly an ode to free-spirited non-conformity, has just become creatively oppressing.
So as you start planning your outfit for the summer concert circuit, maybe try a real out-of-the-box approach. Even if for you, that means wearing khakis.
Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post’s national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.