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Woodstock: The birthplace of festival fashion

Once upon a time, Woodstock wasn't a commercial opportunity, it was a statement of identity

Vanessa Friedman | NYT 


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 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 of Woodstock was the of no 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 favoured 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, multicoloured 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 Levi’s 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; 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; colours and patterns that mapped out the search for enlightenment through cultures and communes and the back of one’s hand.

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 to the mythic stereotypes of indigenous people and living in alliance with nature.

© 2019 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, August 09 2019. 23:16 IST