CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ahhhh ... the music festival season is upon us. For those of you who participate in that great rite of summer, this is the time of year that makes live music lovers as giddy as a kid at Christmas.
Admittedly, many think the idea of porta-potties, hours in the hot sun and throngs of sweaty people is one of Dante's circles of hell. However, I cling to the belief that, if I am a really good person my whole life and I get to go to heaven, there will be a music festival every weekend and I will have VIP camping -- and my own shaded viewing area.
Contrary to what many think, music festivals are not just dens of sweaty patchouli-doused hippies. As noted in a recent Elle magazine article by Joe Zee, they have become style events forecasting fashion trends or, as he calls it, "free-range style incubators."
Some of the most iconic images associated with festival fashion emanate from paparazzi-style photos of Hollywood starlets and fashion models out and among the regular festivalgoers. One of my favorite images is of glamazon supermodel Kate Moss at the 2005 Glastonbury Music Festival in Scotland, traipsing across a muddy lawn in black Wellingtons, short shorts and a fitted black vest.
Another is of Victoria's Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio at the Coachella festival in a big floppy 1970s-style hat, big Jackie O glasses, white fringed tunic and roper-style cowboy boots. In sum, festival fashion has gone mainstream and, given its phoenixlike reinvention of itself every year, it looks like it is here to stay.
My first exposure to festival fashion was at the 2006 Coachella Music Festival, held outside Palm Springs, Calif., at a polo field in the hot, hot desert. While the countless indie and dance music acts were the initial draw for me, I quickly realized that there was something afoot in terms of a very definite fashion style and one that wasn't yet splattered over every fashion magazine.
However, almost as soon as day one of the three-day festival was over, pictures of the most fashionable attendees and eye-catching outfits were plastered on the web and fashion bloggers were atwitter. Even the venerable Los Angeles Times routinely devotes style coverage of this annual Mecca-like festival. It was almost as if Coachella were a slumbering fashion god awakening to proclaim the hot new trends to come.
This then became the cherry on my heavenly slice of cake.
So, what is this festival fashion? At the risk of completely dating myself, I can only describe it as "a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll," plus a healthy dose of Woodstock. There is one universal look at every festival: boots with shorts and dresses.
The boot style is tweaked depending on the festival you attend and on which coast. For instance, at Coachella, you tend to see more leather moccasins and cowboy boots. At festivals in the Eastern U.S., such as Bonnaroo and the Forecastle Festival, where the climate is unpredictable and commonly involves rain, Wellingtons (rain boots) are the favorite of fashion-forward hipsters.
Why boots you ask? Why not these cute strappy sandal pumps or sky-high wedges from Tori Burch? As you may have guessed, the country's most famous and wondrous music festivals are outdoors on the grass or on the dirt. They also involve several stages of nonstop and oftentimes overlapping musical acts. This means you will walk back and forth among the stages, sometimes a lot.
Speaking from experience, your pedicure is going look really nasty after hour two (if you're lucky), your toes will be stomped on by countless people, and you will have to battle your biggest enemy, the terrain. And, once darkness descends, you will lose this battle! Ankles will be twisted, sandal straps broken, knees scraped.
Another fashion trend born out of necessity is the hat -- and not the baseball cap variety! As most festivals generally have little shade, the hat (and sunscreen) becomes your best ally in another war; this one against the sun. Big floppy sunhats, fedoras and cowboy hats are quintessential festival fashion styles. For those folks who don't wear hats, the de rigueur feather headbands of the 2007-09 festivals have been solidly replaced with flower headbands. The look is very Summer of Love!
Given that staying cool is the key, pants tend to be rather nonexistent in festival fashion. This year's festival style features the ever-popular staple, the maxi dress, in bright tribal prints, ombre-died fabric or nautical stripes. For short dresses, florals are very fashion-forward, especially frocks with lace detailing and pleated waistlines.
Another hot trend in both the festival and indie fashion set is high-waisted short shorts paired with a graphic print crop top or bustier. This style looks great with a roper or cowboy boot; bright, chunky, geometric-shaped jewelry; and some throwback Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Festival fashion makeup is another style of its own. The only kind of heavy makeup you will see at a festival is face-painting and mehndi tattoos. Makeup is usually very natural. Think California surfer girl rather than girls night out. Instead of a heavy foundation, use a tinted sunscreen and light bronzer. Skip the multilayered eye makeup and opt for a neutral or nude eye. Brighten the look with cobalt blue, royal purple or jade green eyeliner. The lip is typically glossy with a hint of color. My go-to festival makeup products are waterproof mascara and eyeliner, lip stain and SPF lip balm.
If all this talk about shadeless venues and foot-torturing situations is swaying you to the heck-no-I-won't-go side of the music festival debate, there is still the fashion to embrace! A style born out of exuberance, playfulness and youth, it truly is a fashion celebrating the joys of summer.
Music festival tips
For those of you interested in taking part of the music festival experience, check out festheads.com for a list of all the U.S. festivals by date, location and type of music. Here are some tips on what to expect when attending:
- Most festivals do not allow in any type of food or beverages, including water. Find out beforehand what you are permitted to bring. Most allow you to bring in an empty bottle for filling at water stations. If this is allowed, do it! Otherwise you could be paying $8 to $10 for an empty plastic bottle once inside.
- Backpacks or small purses that you can wear across your shoulders are a good choice because you will have to schlep it around for hours. There are some fabulous options out now.
- If you are not a hat person, try my favorite festival look, a Chinese-print parasol. It offers more sun coverage and has the bonus of making you look mysterious and exotic -- unless you have sneakers on, then it just looks weird. Note that some music festivals do not permit umbrellas as they block the view.
- Bring waterproof, sweat-proof sunscreen in at least SPF 50.
- This may seem like a no-brainer, but drink lots of water (the kind with no beer in it). Otherwise you may end up being one of those people being pulled out of a crowd suffering from heat exhaustion. Similarly, if the festival has a cool room or "spray station" where you can cool down, take advantage of it.
- Bring wet wipes and hand sanitizer. While most festivals have fairly clean porta-potty facilities, water for hand-washing tends to run out at the end of the night.
- A sarong is one of my go-to items for music festivals. They are lightweight, can be stuffed into most bags, and they are very versatile. You can use them as a blanket to sit on or as a cover-up if it gets cold at night.
- While a small wedge is fine, don't wear heels. By the end of the night, you will hate yourself -- and your friends will end up hating you too.
- Festivals are the best way to get exposed to the most exciting up-and-coming musical acts in one small time period. While you should research all that is offered at your festival, leave a little room in your schedule to wander about and enjoy the experience. These are the Woodstocks of our times!
Dennise Smith is a Charleston lawyer, fashion designer and co-founder of the local arts group Nomadic Tribes Collective.