On January 21st 2021, Michael and Emily Eavis announced the news that Glastonbury would be cancelled for the second year in a row. A necessary decision, of course – it’s best not to gather 200,000 people in a field when many are still waiting to be vaccinated– but a sad one nonetheless. Whether seasoned pros or fresh-faced newbies, ticket holders across the world will be suffering from the festival blues this summer, longing to be knee-deep in mud, warm pint in hand, experiencing the pure euphoria that can only be found amid a crowd of people singing the same words in unison.
To soothe our collective pain, Glastonbury and the BBC announced that they would broadcast a five-hour star-studded gig in May, featuring performances from acts including Coldplay, Haim and Kano. While it suffered a few technical difficulties during the initial live stream, the event gave long time ticket holders the chance to see exclusive music live from the festival's home on Worthy Farm. Similarly, the V&A decided to toast Glastonbury's glorious history with a programme of interactive events including soundscapes recorded at festivals past to The Memories Project, which invites festivalgoers to contribute their experiences in an effort to map out a 360-degree look at the true Glastonbury.
Us? We’ve been scanning through Glastonbury’s archives to chart the most thrilling stage looks, from Janelle Monáe’s 2019 geometric get-up to Neneh Cherry’s 1997 frothy tulle dress. Yet while the performers' sartorial choices regularly make headlines – remember Gaga’s mirrorball look from 2009? – it’s the crowd’s style that defines a festival’s aesthetic. So how did we evolve from Woodstock’s hippie-favoured homemade hemp to Coachella’s influencer-promoted #OOTD? When the only real requirement of festival clothing is that it’s rain- and mud-proof – the rest is up to you – it’s fascinating that we’ve formed an unspoken cultural understanding of what to wear for five days in a field.
Festivals have always been about escapism and shaking off the responsibilities of daily life to be – however temporarily – whoever you want to be, but with retailers from high-end to high street offering curated 'festival edits', what was once a celebration of individuality has become a uniform. Happily, in recent years festivals like Afropunk have diversified the notion of 'festival fashion', injecting some much-needed excitement and self-expression into a landscape of clichés and tired fancy dress.
As festival season is put on ice this summer, we’re using the fallow year to ask: what’s really at the heart of festival fashion?
Woodstock, held in August 1969 on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, was a one-time event and yet, like an insect suspended in amber, is preserved in our collective consciousness as the epitome of what a festival should be. Drawing more than 400,000 people to watch the likes of Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Sly & The Family Stone, Woodstock was billed as "an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music" and became a defining moment in cultural history. At the time, America was undergoing a period of deep political turbulence: from the civil rights movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis to women’s lib and the Vietnam War, the left-leaning youth were disillusioned and looking for an alternative to the status quo. Rebelling against the prim and proper 1950s, all Dior’s New Look, strict gender stereotypes and post-war societal conformity, kids everywhere sought a revolution. Woodstock provided just that. Nearly half a million people lived in relative peace for three days, sharing political sentiments and solutions and cooperating on everything from food distribution to shelter – all without any visible security presence.
Archival photos from the festival might celebrate casual nudity – women were freeing the nipple long before the 2014 social media campaign – but the clothes people wore at Woodstock continue to influence us 50 years later. Home-wrought and handmade techniques which remain in fashion today were born out of the Woodstock era: tie-dye was created in the kitchen sink while crochet, previously reserved for grandma’s bedspread, was used to make barely-there bras. The ultimate symbol of rebellion favoured by Marlon Brando and James Dean in the 1950s, denim was everywhere, but in the late '60s true blues were painted, frayed, embroidered and patchworked, signalling a new psychedelic kind of aesthetic insurgency. "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi’s to both sexes. Woodstock rises from his pages," wrote William S. Burroughs in 1985's The Adding Machine.
As young people sought a freer alternative to their parents’ strait-laced America, the beatniks’ On The Road morphed into the hippie trail: from Kabul to Kathmandu, Delhi to Dhaka, mind-expanding trips across continents in a beaten up VW camper van became a rite of passage. Long before 2010’s YouTube sketch Gap Yah – "Sorry Tarquin, I’m laterally in Burma" – hippies of the 1960s roamed the planet and came back with traditional clothing made from centuries-old craftsmanship, as wide-reaching as macramé and woodblock print. Woodstock, then, was seminal not only in its championing of nudity but in its fusion of clothing from around the world: west African dashikis were worn with Peruvian alpaca shawls, Bangladeshi kantha gowns with Thai chong kraben. The issue of cultural appropriation was yet far off but Woodstock's conflation of 'foreign' aesthetics with festival escapism would trickle down to revellers in the early 21st century offensively donning Indian bindis and Native American headdresses.
Woodstock wasn’t the only festival started by the flower children of the 1960s. The Isle of Wight Festival took place annually from 1968 to 1970, the third year drawing nearly 700,000 people (a much larger crowd than Woodstock) to see Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, The Doors and Leonard Cohen. Without the influence of Ron and Ray Foulk’s free-lovin’ Isle of Wight Festivals, Glastonbury, which began in 1970, might not be the experience we know today: its cofounder Andrew Kerr, who, after being introduced to Michael Eavis, instigated Glastonbury’s return in 1971, had been at the Isle of Wight Festival the year before and took many of its bohemian ethics to Worthy Farm. The rip-up-the-rulebook attitude of the late 1960s birthed the idealistic free festival scene but little did those kids in suede and denim know that their countercultural communes would shape the way we see festivals – and festival fashion – 50 years on.
Glastonbury’s first event, Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival, was a pretty low-key affair, bringing together 1,500 people on Worthy Farm to watch the likes of The Kinks and T. Rex. The following year the Glastonbury Fair took place, including the first iteration of the Pyramid Stage (inspired, much like the clothes worn by Woodstock-goers, by a feature of the hippie trail, the Great Pyramid of Giza), but the festival didn’t truly get off the ground until the 1980s. While the authorities shut down many of the smaller free festivals organised by folk trying to keep the spirit of the ‘60s alive, the 1970s were dominated by the growing punk scene in the latter half of the decade.
Britain was fraught with racial tension in the late ‘70s. People were disillusioned with the ineffective 1965 Race Relations Act, while the National Front’s growing presence was spreading hatred and vitriol throughout the country. Rock Against Racism, a grassroots organisation established in 1976 to stand against racism and honour the music industry’s multicultural roots, gained momentum, with gigs bringing together Black and white musicians in pubs from Sheffield to Bristol. By 1978, support for the movement had grown so strong that Rock Against Racism organised two London rallies with the Anti-Nazi League. One hundred thousand people marched from Trafalgar Square to a festival in Victoria Park featuring The Clash and X-Ray Spex, and from Hyde Park to a gig in Brockwell Park with the likes of Elvis Costello and Stiff Little Fingers.
A far cry from the handcrafted aesthetic of the Woodstock generation, the clothes worn by these festivalgoers nevertheless had just as much political significance. In lieu of tie-dye and embroidery, other DIY techniques were employed: fans of Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s boutique SEX wore leather jackets punctured with safety pins and metal studs – outerwear still favoured today as an alternative to parkas and rain macs in combating unpredictable festival weather. Gone too were bare feet in the mud; Dr Martens, the hard-wearing worker boots adopted by anti-establishment punks, became the footwear of choice. "We’ve been adopted as a symbol of rebellion since the late ‘60s and as the festival landscape grew, so did our involvement," Amber Henry, communications and events lead for the brand tells Refinery29. The label’s legacy is in evidence at festivals today, as punters from Lovebox to Latitude don the classic 1460 boot with every kind of get-up, while the Dr Martens Boot Room tours the festival circuit, hosting experiential events from SXSW to Field Day. The boot’s success in capturing the festival spirit is twofold. "We’ve always been a badge of self-expression, which would go a long way to explain why we're a festival go-to," Henry says. "That, and we tend to survive a mosh pit and a muddy field better than others."
From 1981 onwards, Glastonbury became a permanent fixture on the summer schedule. Michael Eavis took full control and aligned with political organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Oxfam, Greenpeace and WaterAid, cementing Glastonbury’s place in the utopian free festival tradition. A profit was turned (donated to charity, of course), the children’s area was established and, with the crowd growing from 30,000 punters to 100,000, by 1985 the neighbouring farm was purchased to expand the experience. Beyond Glastonbury’s development, the 1980s' only notable 'festival' – and resulting fashions – was Live Aid. Formed by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, it brought together the likes of Elton John, Queen, Madonna, Sade, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Tina Turner to raise money for relief efforts for the 1983-5 famine in Ethiopia.
From oversized colour-pop blazers to slogan tees ('Choose Life' and 'Frankie Says Relax' are among the ‘80s favourites that can still be seen in festival crowds today), classic square Ray-Ban sunnies, bouffant hair, leather bomber jackets and excessively layered jewellery, all the hallmarks of 1980s style were present on stage. The ‘80s aesthetic may be instantly recognisable but the era’s squeaky-clean pop sounds and parent-approved heartthrobs meant it didn’t throw up any rebellion that stuck in our collective consciousness in the same way as the bohemian freedom of the ‘60s and the hard-edged utilitarianism of the ‘70s. Instead, the sartorial signifiers of the ‘80s have morphed and mutated into a go-to festival fancy dress uniform. A bastardised homage to the look – think neon tutus, polyester tracksuits, legwarmers and backcombed hair – has long been a festival crowdpleaser among those celebrating hen dos and big birthdays alike, in large part thanks to its cartoonish properties.
In the ‘90s the festival scene got interesting again, with evolving subcultures on both sides of the Atlantic inspiring musical and aesthetic trends that can still be detected today. Alt band Jane’s Addiction organised Lollapalooza in 1991 as a farewell tour of the United States, with performances ranging from rap (Ice-T) to punk (Siouxsie and the Banshees) to straight-up rock (Nine Inch Nails). Breaking down genre boundaries that defined and limited musicians, the tour birthed the ‘alternative rock’ explosion in the USA, tapping into a disaffected youth ready for something different. Characterised by Richard Linklater’s ‘90s movie Slacker, kids on the fringes of society with a stick-it-to-the-man attitude gave an apathetic shoulder shrug to any kind of mainstream trajectory. Much like the hippies and punks before them, they rejected the formula of school to office job to marriage and kids, celebrating other ways of life instead.
In conjunction with the grunge and riot grrrl scenes, the simultaneously angsty and laid-back attitude of ‘90s youth was reflected in their personal style. Inspired by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Anthony Kiedis – all long hair, oversized T-shirts, hole-ridden checked shirts, army-grade boots and skateboard-friendly kicks – the general vibe radiating from the crowds at Lollapolooza was defiantly don’t-give-a-fuck. While the self-awareness brought about by the internet and neoliberalism makes it hard to believe that an off-the-radar slacker culture could thrive in the same way today, threads of the skate-n-bake alternative rock scene remain visible in 2020 via Mac DeMarco’s over-washed striped T-shirts, cap and denim overalls (which have influenced a generation of fuck boys’ wardrobes) and Pete Davidson and Jonah Hill’s scumbro tie-dye tees and oversized hoodies.
Laughing in the face of America’s nihilistic grunge offering, a cleaner, more mainstream take on alternative rock was presented through the UK’s Britpop scene, a cultural wave that celebrated Britishness via references to Carnaby Street and the Swinging Sixties. A key aspect of the wider Cool Britannia movement that swept the UK in the mid 1990s, championing British culture from the YBAs to the Ministry of Sound, Britpop was all Oasis vs Blur chart battles, a reverence for the sound’s forefathers Paul McCartney and Ray Davies, working class pride and peacocking masculinity. The Union Jack was everywhere – think Geri Halliwell’s dress and Noel Gallagher’s guitar – and became the scene's catch-all symbol.
From a style perspective, while Liam Gallagher’s simian swagger lives on today (he lifted the round sunnies and parka from John Lennon and Paul Weller before him), it’s Britpop’s casuals style that is most keenly felt these days at festivals from Croatia to Cornwall. Damon Albarn and co were champions of Stone Island, Kangol, bucket hats, Harrington jackets and footy shirts; today, any hypebeast worth his salt is hitting the main stage, can of lager in hand, in deference to the original poster boys of lad culture. Later co-opted by Tony Blair’s ‘97 Labour government to further its popularity, Cool Britannia and subsequently Britpop – now considered more of a marketing ploy exploiting new-age self-obsession than an organic youth movement – lost out to the pure pop sounds of the late ‘90s, led by Britney Spears, the Spice Girls and *NSYNC.
Yet while Britpop dominated the press in the 1990s, something far more special was unfolding underground. You can't chart the history of festivals and the subcultures they served without mentioning the meteoric rise of dance music. Away from posturing men wielding guitars, kids looking for laser-lit dance floors were after something altogether more hedonistic. Tribal Gathering (a clanger of a name, in retrospect) started in 1993, bringing together fans of dance music of all kinds, from techno to house. Orbital's '94 set on the NME stage at Glastonbury was such a hit that the following year, Eavis gave EDM fans the Dance Tent, which has grown so exponentially at the festival that the genre now has its own village. Meanwhile, Soul II Soul, Pete Tong, Underworld and The Chemical Brothers hit stages from Creamfields to Homelands (both founded at the end of the decade), as club kids and rave revellers let go of their responsibilities from dusk 'til dawn. Their garms of choice? Much like the bands of Britpop, streetwear labels featured on sweaty dance floors but dilated pupils and swinging jaws were accessorised with baggier silhouettes, brighter hues, smiley slogans and space buns – a look that's still in evidence at festivals today.
Channel 4 televised Glastonbury for the first time in 1994 but it wasn’t until the BBC took over in 1997 that the festival really started to become the cultural phenomenon we know today. The public broadcasting of the event had an irreversible impact on how we think of festival fashion, "adding an element of self-awareness from festivalgoers" that we just hadn’t seen before, as Harriet Reed, exhibition research assistant at the V&A, notes.
This self-awareness reached new heights in the early noughties, when a frenzied tabloid culture became far more interested in the models, actresses and TV presenters emerging from the VIP area than the musicians on stage. The papers were already enamoured with the Primrose Hill set but Glastonbury 2004 cemented Sienna Miller as the poster child of aspirational and contemporary bohemian style. Made up of neon yellow, mirror-reflected aviator sunnies, an oversized coin-studded belt, frayed denim waterfall ra-ra skirt, Ugg boots and a Budweiser cup the size of a statement handbag, her look at Glastonbury that year is, on paper, questionable, but something about its messiness made people fall in love (of course it helps to be a petite, tanned blonde). Sienna may have ushered in a new era for festival fashion but Kate Moss’ 2005 turn takes the crown. The reason why Hunter wellies went from farmer favourite to the chicest boot for combating the mud? That summer, Moss ingeniously donned a pair of Hunters with a waistcoat and hot pants. The very same year, she wore the boots with nothing but a gold lurex minidress and low-slung belt. Both looks – a nonchalant "Oh, this old thing?" – cemented her in our minds as the queen of Glastonbury, the model becoming forever synonymous with festival fashion.
Though Instagram was yet to be invented, Sienna and Kate’s sartorial battle of the bands "both coincided with the rise of social media and the high street brand’s ability to more rapidly replicate celeb style," muses Hannah Craggs, trend forecaster WGSN’s senior strategist for youth. "Also, with genuine connections to the artists and musicians, consumers saw these looks as authentic and aspirational." Kate Moss wearing her then-boyfriend Pete Doherty’s rosary beads, trilby and silk scarves screamed: "I’m with the band but could be in the band, too." As all eyes fell on VIPs and their garms, the fashion industry took note, offering punters the chance to channel their favourite celebrities from their own tent. "The biggest evolution has been the categorisation of ‘festival fashion’ itself, now a permanent fixture of the fashion calendar," Reed notes. "The fashion industry jumped on this huge market audience that were now dressing for an event, rather than just the music."
In the 2010s, Alexa Chung was to Barbour what Kate Moss was to Hunter. "Windproof, weather resistant and designed with plenty of large pockets, festivalgoers find that our jackets are perfect for keeping hold of everything they need for a day spent dancing in a field watching their favourite bands," says Paul Wilkinson, global marketing and commercial director at Barbour of the brand becoming the unofficial festival outerwear. Proving that the practical countryside favourite could look contemporary – just swap out the cord trousers and tweed flat cap for Breton-striped tees, high-waisted denim shorts and leather jackets – Chung became the new kid on the block who everyone wanted to emulate come festival season. Rather than referencing the bohemia of Woodstock in the way Kate and Sienna had the previous decade, Chung’s take on festival fashion was fresh and shifted our perspective by demonstrating that your look need not be a parody – you could wear the same outfit to Glastonbury that you sported at a city pub the week before. From cotton minidresses to oversized shirts, metallic slips to slogan knitwear, Chung’s status as patron saint of contemporary festival style earned her a sellout and ongoing collaboration with Barbour, further modernising the heritage brand with cropped, patchwork and vinyl takes on its classic styles.
As a new set of aesthetic codes was adopted in the 2010s, festival fashion also became so commercialised that the self-expression celebrated at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight lost out to mass-produced flower crowns, glitter, printed pac-a-macs and ‘wacky’ sunglasses. Bestival presented the only acceptable style of fancy dress thanks to its yearly themes, which encourage genuinely smart and creative theatrics. For the most part, however, those sporting culturally insensitive bindis, dashikis, war paint and headdresses repeated the sentiments of the ‘70s: festival is about escapism and what's more escapist than adopting another culture’s aesthetic codes? Crowds dressed to see David Guetta as if they were hitting South America to take ayahuasca, and subsequently stripped all religious and cultural significance from sacred dress that didn’t belong to them. This total removal of meaning was felt nowhere more than Coachella, where manufactured nostalgia met paid-for promotions of fast fashion brands tagged on Instagram. Individuality could now be bought for the price of a fringed, faux suede Boohoo.com co-ord, and Paris Hilton and Vanessa Hudgens were the faces of this new, diluted, offensive and commercialised festival season.
Just when it looked like festival fashion couldn’t recover from the vulgarity of commercialism, Beyoncé cracked open a new chapter and proved that originality and self-expression was alive and well. Her now-iconic 2018 Coachella performance and the resulting making-of documentary Homecoming are love letters to Black culture and creativity. Her set was history-making: not only was it the first time a Black woman had headlined the festival but the five outfits she wore on stage, orchestrated with stylist Marni Senofonte and Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing, celebrated Black power, from the dripping-in-diamonds homage to Egyptian queen Nefertiti and the college hoodies repping historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), to the netted dress with customised crest featuring nods to the Black Panthers and the symbolic Black power fist. Suddenly, the old white men who had dominated the canon of ‘great’ music seemed so irrelevant. Beyoncé's seismic performance initiated a much-needed injection of the personal and the political into the festival scene, and her aesthetic choices reflected that.
The following year, another political powerhouse performance blew minds, whether you were watching from the field or your living room. As the first Black British solo artist to headline Glastonbury, Stormzy gave crowds a monumental mash-up of politics, power and pyrotechnics, using his platform to spotlight issues like the disproportionate number of BAME people in the criminal justice system, celebrate Black creativity with the BAME dance troupe Ballet Black, and encourage an audience-wide sing-a-long to the lines "Fuck the government, fuck Boris!" While the performance itself was a culturally defining moment, his choice of outfit was no less political: wearing a Union Jack stab-proof vest designed by Banksy, Stormzy highlighted Britain’s knife crime crisis and the inequality experienced by criminalised young Black men.
If Beyoncé, Stormzy and more (Janelle Monáe used her 2019 Glasto set to denounce Donald Trump and celebrate Black queer women) are onstage proof that festivals, even in the face of commercialism, can still be not only relevant but thrilling, then the crowds at Afropunk prove it too. Founded in 2005 by James Spooner and Matthew Morgan as a safe space for Black communities to enjoy music from the predominantly white punk scene, over time it grew to include music of all genres, from neo-soul to funk and hip-hop. While many mourn the festival’s departure from its punk roots, Afropunk’s global influence took off when Jocelyn Cooper, former head of A&R at Universal, came on board and expanded the festival from its founding site in Brooklyn to overseas. From Berlin and Paris to Johannesburg, 90,000 people travel far and wide each year to attend the multi-site festival, which has seen genre-bending performances from Tyler, the Creator, Erykah Badu, Grace Jones, Mykki Blanco, SZA, Solange and more. One of the many exciting things about the festival is its crowd’s unrivalled style. "In a world where brown and Black folks can be looked over, it’s a place where Black excellence is celebrated as far as the eye can see," said Crystal Anderson of the festival’s style-as-self-expression. Nods to traditional dress are fused with future-looking styling, while artfully crafted hair and makeup is as much of a statement as the prints on the clothes. At Afropunk there is no one prescriptive way of dressing, making it a million times more important than any tired festival fashion clichés.
As crowds expand and diversify, festivals and their punters’ style only get more interesting. Adwoa Aboah’s much-referenced 2017 Glastonbury look – wide-legged camo-print trousers, tinted shades and a black beret emblazoned with the word 'respect' – was surely the final nail in the coffin of Woodstock-inspired 'boho chic'. What will festivals and their crowds look like post-coronavirus? "There’s certainly fresh inspiration to be found in festival style," Craggs says. "Every generation of attendees bring new ideas and put their own spin on it. I’m most excited by the new survivalist looks [think vigilante streetwear] and performance-enhanced properties for fashion." Problematic fancy dress and hackneyed references to a gathering that took place over 50 years ago may have come close to putting an end to the thrill of festival fashion but originality and creativity still abound in muddy fields the world over.