With the oldest millennials turning 40 and the youngest celebrating their quarter-life birthday this year, the 2021 festival season and the fashion that comes with it may not have the same energy they did back in 2019.
And that’s not a bad thing.
Arguably the mainstage of festival fashion, Coachella won’t return from its two-year hiatus until April 2022. A regular fixture since 1999, the two-weekend Indio, Calif.-based music festival earned a permanent place on millennial bucket lists, thanks in part to the commercialized fanfare around the event, including H&M‘s Coachella-branded merch, a roster of Levi’s and Revolve-sponsored celebrity-studded events, and the annual flood of Instagram posts awash in the cohort’s signature wanderlust-meets-Tumblr-meets-bohemian aesthetic—a vibe that surely screams “cheugy” according to Gen Z’s discerning standards.
A label synonymous with “basic” and “trying too hard,” cheugy resurfaced on TikTok this spring when Gen Z users began naming millennial-centric trends they deem outdated—a roll call that runs the gamut of designer items like Gucci’s “Double G” belt, Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull tote and Golden Goose sneakers, to skinny jeans, Chevron print and items emblazoned with feminist phrases like “Boss Babe.” And the term isn’t limited to fashion. Cruises, Minion memes and Axe Body Spray have all been given the dubious name.
The very concept of festival fashion, this idea that a music-filled weekend means it’s open season to dress up as pseudo hippies—not to mention it’s existence as a manufactured season marketed mostly by virgin polyester-consuming fast-fashion corporations—is cheugy in and of itself.
A deeper dive into the category, however, reveals one cheugy culprit after another. Flower crowns? Cheugy. Ugg boots in the summer? Cheugy. Embellished captain hats? Cheugy. Temporary metallic tattoos? Cheugy, and probably problematic given that many designs steal sacred symbols from Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American cultures.
Indeed, political correctness, like taste, has not been millennials’ strong suit when it comes to dressing for music festivals, especially those on the older end of the spectrum. Festival “trends” like dreamcatcher-themed accessories, fashion and footwear adorned with “ethnic” or “tribal” beading, prints and embroidery and the use of bindis as makeup, top the list of offensive festival faux pas that millennials embraced during the 2010s. The cohort’s penchant for accessorizing with Native American feather headdresses may be the cringiest yet, given that the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has campaigned to eliminate Native American stereotypes since the 1940s. Organizers of the Tall Tree and Bass Coast festivals in Canada, as well as San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, eventually issued warnings to attendees to stop copping the heritage of indigenous peoples as part of their off-the-grid costume.
These items, which often ignoted the ire of socially conscious consumers, began to wane prior to the pandemic, giving runway to trends like bike shorts, deconstructed denim and merch tees in 2019. The climate in which people felt comfortable and confident wearing such boldly culturally appropriated fashion, however, is lightyears away.
The Black Lives Matter movement last summer exposed fashion’s widespread exploitation of minorities’ talent, creativity and ideas. It also revealed the murkiness that obfuscates when designers are simply “inspired” by a region of the world—a common description for all types of fashion collections—versus acts of outrights culture appropriation. Despite brands pledging to diversify their workforces and include underrepresented voices in their decision-making processes, companies continue to fumble and stumble.
Following the outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Louis Vuitton pulled its $705 monogram keffieh stole modeled after a keffiyeh, a scarf often viewed as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
And the colorful embroideries employed by retailers like Zara and Anthropologie have not gone unnoticed by Mexico’s Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, who published an open letter to the brands in May calling out their cultural appropriation of techniques unique to the Mixtec people of San Juan Colorado and the Mixe community in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. The letter spoke out “in defense of the cultural heritage of indigenous communities to avoid plagiarism of their identity elements” by corporations.
Other brands are working to correct their mistakes. As anti-Asian attacks in the U.S. surged last spring, the white-owned streetwear label Chinatown Market responded to a Change.org petition that described the brand’s moniker as an “act of cultural theft” by announcing it would go under a rebranding. In a statement, co-founder Michael Cherman said: “The Asian American community is rightfully demanding all of us think and act more honestly. We should have done this sooner, but it is never too late to do the right thing. Our name was inspired by the shops, people, and vibrance of Canal Street and Chinatown in New York but it’s not our name to use. We did not do enough to consider what this name would mean to the communities in Chinatowns across the world and we need to take ownership of this mistake.”
What this new age of woke consumerism means for a merchandising category that has heavily leaned on the traditions and craftsmanship of oppressed cultures—all in the name of escapism—remains to be seen. While we’ll get our first glimpse this summer at several Gen Z-headlined events, including Chicago’s Lollapalooza featuring Crocs-collaborator Post Malone and Miley Cyrus, and New York’s Governors Ball starring Billie Eilish, the festivals’ urban settings never quite made them a hotbed for the most classically outlandish festival garb—at least not compared to Coachella’s conspicuous standards.
Coachella’s pause, however, offers an opportunity for millennials to make a graceful exit from festival fashion and make space for Gen Z.
By the time Coachella-goers begin their takeover of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree next year, three years will have passed since the last festival. Gen Z will return with more spending power and influence over fashion, meaning their demands for inclusivity, sustainability, equality and fair representation will (hopefully) trump the fleeting fads millennials started.
The generation likely won’t be without its own cringey take on festival fashion—here’s looking at you, pukka shell-wearing Coconut Girls and metallic corset-wearing Cosmic Girls—but Gen Z is forewarned about misusing culture and identity. Besides being fodder for TikTok, the gaffes, facepalms and down right “what the hell were you thinking” moments that keep millennials up at night (and keep meditation and sleep apps doing brisk business) are a masterclass on growth and the importance of righting wrongs.
And that’s not to say millennials shouldn’t go to festivals. Go and better yet—just go as yourself.