Woodstock Was the Birthplace of Festival Fashion

It’s hard to remember, now that every e-tailer from the luxury Net-a-Porter to the accessible ASOS has a section on its website devoted to “festival fashion;” now that brands like Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Amazon host special “activations” at Coachella; and now that influencers descend on Governors Ball to snap totally manufactured pictures of themselves swaying in product-placed ecstasy to whatever band of the moment is playing. But when it all began, “festival” and “fashion” were actually opposing concepts.

In fact, what you wore to the first was selected specifically as a protest against the second: chosen to make a statement of individuality and rebellion against the dictates not just of the establishment, but the designers who dressed them. Or so it was at Woodstock, where an aesthetic was encoded that has formed the DNA of all festival style that followed, but which was originally based on rejection.

The fashion of Woodstock was the fashion of no fashion at all.

It was the anti-little shift dress, anti-Peter-Pan collar and windowpane check. The anti-sport coat, anti-mock turtle terry cloth striped V-neck. The anti-pinafore, anti-cardigan — anti-all those garments that had become synonymous with the working uniforms of avenues from Madison to Massachusetts. It was anti-bras and anti-shoes: Before we freed the nipple they freed the breasts and feet. An anti-commercial, anticapitalist assertion of identity, made through clothes (at least when clothes were involved at all) and documented in photographs: of denim-clad, flower-crowned boys and girls (and babies) dancing in the mud, slung across car hoods and grassy knolls, streaming down the dust-and-trash-strewn road.

Instead the dress code — unofficial, of course, product of a mass mind-meld that made a mash-up of peace, love and material — celebrated the handmade: the crocheted and macrame’d vest and detail, upsized from potholders and furniture doilies, the kind they teach you to make in arts and crafts classes but that was reinvented as a new kind of homewear (so much cooler than homewares) at Yasgur’s Farm. It favored tie-dye long before the fashion world got hold of it and changed its name to “dégradé” — back when anyone could take an old T-shirt, twist it, secure with rubber bands, and dip into vats of dye for a sunburst, multicolored look that called to mind a wearable kaleidoscope, or a Crayola-saturated trip.

It embraced denim, the hallmark of the revolution and the youth movement. As William S. Burroughs once said of Jack Kerouac, his book “sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road.” And that, apparently, led many of them straight to Woodstock, the better to show off jeans faded and ripped; worn on the tip of the hip bone purposely to expose the midriff and belly button; held on with rope or big, leather belts.

It championed the hippie trail: the fabrics that could be found while backpacking from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Rajasthan to Kerala, tapestries transformed into sarongs with a knot and a needs must; napkins tied into halter necks tops; colors and patterns that mapped out the search for enlightenment through cultures and communes and the back of one’s hand.

[See all of our coverage of Woodstock at 50.]

This was long before anyone began thinking about issues of cultural appropriation, of course, since easily half the attendees at Woodstock would have been guilty as charged. Not only in their assimilation of ethnic styles, but in their apparent obsession with the fringing and beadwork of Native American dress: swinging from halter tops and suede vests over not much else at all, blowin’ in the wind, all of it meant to connect their pledge of harmony, personal and musical, to the mythic stereotypes of indigenous people and living in alliance with nature. To set this ideal in contrast to the false promises of the besuited patriarchy, just as the protest politics implicit in taking Old Glory off its pedestal (or to be literal, pole) and making it into shorts (the kind you sit on) and backpack coverings (the kind you sleep on) were their own form of sartorial heresy. It wasn’t flag-burning, but it was close.

And though this cornucopia of denim and Indian print and fringe and tie-dye and crochet was united — from the vantage point of history — in its somewhat hackneyed celebration of D.I.Y. self-expression, in its embrace of both ultra-mini-dresses and mud-sweeping maxi-skirts, bell-bottoms and crop tops, it was also tribal. As a result, it formed the uniform of the counterculture. Though those involved would probably have considered “uniform” to be a dirty word.

There’s an irony in that, though at the time no one saw it (Woodstock was nothing if not sincere in its self-myopia), and even though it doesn’t come close to the irony of what has happened to the trends enshrined at the feet of Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin. Because like it or not, that’s what they have become: trends. And upon those trends, once meant to symbolize an alternative to the corporate ooze, an entire commercial sector has been built.

That it never occurred to the group who created festival fashion that it might one day turn into a style sector of its own; that it would birth an era of mass-produced ersatz “individuality” — the kind that can be donned with a boho deluxe slip — is reflective of the naïveté in which such fashion was born, and the calculated way nostalgia for that time has been exploited.

So now, instead of a mantra, we have a marketing line: Tune in, turn on, dress (and pay) up.

Source link