Every April, the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California hosts Coachella, a seemingly spontaneous indie music and arts festival that is anything but. The festival's website contains links to purchase festival passes, download the conspicuous line-up poster and FAQs on surviving Coachella "alive," but little about the festival's history or objectives. Without an "official" objective, an ad-hoc definition of the festival has been engendered by magazines and the cooler blogs, painting a picture of Coachella as a neo-Woodstock, an image that is as equivocally authentic as Tupac Shakur's Coachella 2012 hologram performance.
Compounded by the festival's bemoaned mainstream musical line-up and attendees (Katy Perry and her ever-changing hair went from Viktor & Rolf's fashion show to a VIP patch of Coachellian grass), Coachella has become a watershed in the standardisation and commercialisation of music festivals through fashion.
Katy Perry at Coachella.
From Vogue to Canada's FASHION magazine and the festival's own CAMP magazine, style authorities promulgate an archetypal, desert music festival regular: the hippie-coined "boho-chic" in fashion speak and often crossbred with the hipster. Thanks to street style coverage by major publications, instagram feeds by fashion blogger-attendees and the plethora of YouTube style guides such as The Chriselle Factor, fashion at Coachella now happens on a global scale.
Talking with avid Coachella-goer, Stephen Sinisi, who assures me he has seen it all and then-some, the hippie aesthetic that magazines would have us believe as so representative of the festival, is actually just a privileged cross-section that the media hypes up. "There is that certain Coachella 'image' that everyone wants to export, but there is so much more going on in terms of fashion at the festival," says Stephen. "I, for one, was taken aback by the amount of Jersey Shore 'juiceheads' present this year, the electro and techno fans wearing nothing short of body paint and elderly hippies who were probably in attendance back at Woodstock."
If Coachella is, in reality, quite diversified, why the fascination with fringed t-shirts, unbuttoned frayed denim shorts, feathers, flower bandanas, beads and lomography? One possible explanation resides in the tendency to romanticise the 1960s' "American Hippie" subculture; its Dionysian impulse still appeals to many people looking to escape social, political and economical restrictions every once in awhile, just for fun, through fashion. What better place to do this than at an outdoor, three-day music festival in the middle of the Mojave Desert?
The success of now-mainstream fashion brands such as Wildfox, StyleStalker, One Teaspoon and Nasty Gal, as well as celebrities-cum-fashion designers, such as Sienna Miller, Chloe Sevigny and the Olsen twins, further attest to the widespread appeal of dressing like a hippie/hobo/boho/hipster (or any other countercultural qualifier deemed appropriate here). Of course, each differs in what they stand for socially, as evinced by Mark Greif's seminal article, What Was The Hipster, but by the cut of their jeggings, they all look the same.
The fashion boundaries ostensibly separating the hobos from the bohos are actually quite porous - a hipster, for example, can appropriately wear a tie-dye shirt, black horn-rimmed glasses and duct-taped shoes, all in the same outfit. And, what's more, they can wear all those things and make a Coachella's best-dressed list as Stephen tells me, "my friend got asked a handful of times to pose for magazines because he had the dark, horn-rimmed glasses, the 'stache and that typical Coachella, west-coast style he forged through a series of visits to Urban Outfitters."
Alongside the standardisation of festival attire, opportunities to commercialise the hippie aesthetic are popping up everywhere, like the New York-style loft-like-tent erected by Swedish fashion retailer, H&M, on the festival grounds. This particular sponsor tent offered water, some shade and of course, the Fashion Against Aids capsule collection, apparently designed with Coachella-goers in mind. Cropped multi-coloured knit bra tops, diaphanous sheers, degradé maxi dresses, tribal-patterned iPhone cases and crochet, fringed vests were so stereotypically Coachella it hurt; they're also stereotypically definitive of what teenagers wear nowadays.
A Santa Monica high school student, Madelyn Shaughnessy, describes Coachella as, "a teen phenomenon that is nothing but commercialised," in an article she wrote for her school paper, The Samohi. Elucidating a target market that is the first to lap-up whatever is on the cusp of being cool, Shaughnessy writes, "teenagers are desperate to maintain a certain image and will therefore follow whatever appears 'cool,' or in this case, 'indie.'"
Emma Roberts at Coachella.
Coachella is a place where teens can live out their virtual peace-love-and-cut-off-shorts dreams as seen on social image-sharing sites such as WeHeartIt.com and Tumblr (where teenage girls flipping the peace sign, scantly clad in boho-chic-inspired attire, reign supreme?). "Many teens desire to mirror that 'vintage' quality, the tube-top shirts...sun glasses and sun hats.... The pictures make great Facebook albums, appearing 'indie' and cultured," writes Shaughnessy, "the exclusivity and popularity of [Coachella] adds to the desire to attend."
Any effort to exploit the festival's commercial potential is targeted at teenagers under the guise of taste, precisely because they are so easily swayed by the "cool-factor" that a hippie, party weekend in the desert proffers. After all, celebrity role models like Vanessa Hudgens, Emma Roberts and Rihanna are all doing it; Coachella, that is.
The biggest testament to Coachella's success as a commercial music festival are the copycat festivals adopting Coachella's winning formula - from brochure aesthetic and indie origins, to boho-chic street style. Sasquatch is one such music festival. A recent posting on style.com heralds, "for everybody who thinks Coachella has become too overexposed, too commercial, too VIP, let us introduce you to Washington State's Sasquatch festival," followed by street style snaps displaying that token Coachellian, west-coast hippie vibe.
A music festival in the middle of the desert. That's all Coachella is, in theory. Fashion has helped cultivate an image of Coachella as the coolest place on earth - where you can channel your inner hippie, watch your favourite celebrities misbehave, and listen to the hottest artist under the blazing sun wearing feathers, fringes and face paint. And where that description holds true for teenage attendees, the fashion faithful and the mass-marketing ventures by clothing brands who proliferate Coachella's alluring facade, there are still elements of the festival that eschew this image - should you choose to seek them out and look beyond the mirage.
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