Scrolling through the endless Coachella updates on social media this past weekend, it was tough not to feel a pang of FOMO. Beyoncé’s headlining performance seemed to electrify every corner of the Internet. The marching band! The fireworks! The Jay-Z cameo! The Destiny’s Child reunion! The Solange-Beyoncé dance off! And that’s not to mention Beyoncé’s insanely glamorous Balmain costumes. This was history in the making in every sense.
And so it was somehow particularly disappointing to find the looks in the crowd at Coachella—what is ostensibly the birthplace of modern festival style —had reached a monumental low this year. So low in fact, that we decided to cut the gallery of street style images from Vogue.com altogether for the first time in this website’s history. As my colleagues and I sifted through almost 100 images, it wasn’t so much the lack of taste that struck us, but rather, a depressing lack of imagination: ironic slogan tees emblazoned with slang epithets (i.e.“ratchet”), bandanas that would have been better left at the rodeo, bikini tops spray-painted with sparkling body paint, a trend more popularly known as “glitter boobs.” Suddenly even the most staid festival tropes—patchwork flares, cutoff denim shorts, crochet minidresses, flower crowns—were starting to look a lot fresher in comparison. Coachella style wasn’t just lurking in a sunken place, it was well and truly dead.
This won’t come as a revelation to some. Street style has been on the decline at Coachella for several years now, a symptom, perhaps, of a festival that has become too bloated and commercial to harvest anything cool (Beychella, notwithstanding). Things weren’t always this way, of course. I witnessed an entirely different scene when I traveled to the Coachella desert about 10 years ago to see Prince perform for one night only (at that time, you could buy tickets by the day, a far cheaper alternative to the current three-day pass situation). Back then, the look was much more freewheeling, unstudied, and spontaneous. In fact, many of the festivalgoers would cobble together outfits they’d thrifted along their way from Los Angeles (Palm Springs is a gold mine for outrageous ’70s vintage) resulting in a parade of girls in ethereal, Ladies of the Canyon–style dresses; neo–flower children who’d pair spangly disco shorts with comfy moccasin booties and weather-worn Keds; hipsters in oversize tie-dye shirts they’d made in the bathtub the night before. It might not have been to everyone’s taste, but there was no denying that it was a look, and that look felt much bigger than a single fashion moment. Before long the influence of Coachella would spread beyond the festival grounds, quickly co-opted by models off duty who disseminated the look on the streets of Paris, New York, Milan, and London. It was pretty clear that we’d reached peak festival girl style a few years later, when Coachella-worthy essentials—gladiator sandals, slip dresses, fringed jackets—started showing up on the runway (Chloé, Saint Laurent, and Emilio Pucci, to name a few) rendered in ridiculously luxurious ways. And yet fashion trends of this kind aren’t built to last much longer than a couple of seasons. At a certain point, the Coachella-inspired uniform was so ubiquitous, it started to look old.
So where does that leave us now? Are the days of music festival street style well and truly over? Not quite. Good festival style hasn’t so much disappeared as it has found new, more exciting places to flourish. If you want to see boundary-pushing street style at its most audacious, then go get a ticket for Afropunk in Brooklyn, London, Paris, Atlanta, or Johannesburg, South Africa. Smaller festivals in off-the-beaten-path places have become wellsprings for street style with attitude, too, ( see Marfa Myths and Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, Jamaica ). At a time when the world seems to be collapsing around our ears, that unbridled approach to self-expression—festival dressing with total, utter freedom—is more vital than ever. As for Coachella? Let’s just say it’s lost its fashion groove—at least for now.