What People Are Really Looking For When They Buy Festival Clothes

Fast fashion’s encroachment on festival attire isn’t just commerce—it speaks to our deep-seated need for escape.

On the last night of Coachella 2013, I tried to catch a glimpse of Wu-Tang's headlining performance. The field was packed, and after jamming myself in a few feet, I realized I would never make it any further. All of a sudden, a huge man pushed past me, crushing my sandalled foot with the full weight of his gigantic man frame. A shock of hot, shooting pain radiated up my leg, pain so intense I could feel it in my fingertips, like a lightning bolt. I reached my hand down and felt sharp shards where an immaculately painted toenail had been. When I brought it back up into the light, my hand was slick and dripping with blood.

If people were logical, they'd wear functional clothes to a festival like Coachella—but people are not logical at all, not even a tiny little bit. Like my very cute but ultimately dangerous decision to wear open-toed shoes on that fateful night, the near-ubiquitous Coachella uniform of sandals, fringed leather, and maxi dresses simply isn't practical for desert existence. When you arrive at the festival grounds, located at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, the first thing you notice is the dust; it's yellow like sand, but finer, so it coats your feet and legs in a fine film, sticking to your sweaty skin like paste. The sun is so fierce that it exhausts you completely, wrenching water out of your body as quickly as you can drink it. Sometimes these conditions make the festival more exciting— the sun can be exhilarating, and finding a way to escape it is a mission—but if your fringed cross-body bag is too heavy, or your bralette is itchy, Coachella can be a very physically trying experience.

This year, H&M unveiled a collection called "H&M Loves Coachella," a partnership with the festival that touches upon all the signifiers of bohemian festival-ware, including lacey tunics, kimonos, and a fair amount of fringe. The collection's lookbook features colt-like models kicking dust on a deserted stretch of highway that looks like something straight out of Lana Del Rey's "Ride" video. T-shirts are tied at the waist to reveal swatches of skin between shirt and jorts; dresses look like they're designed to ripple and float in the desert air. The boys wear tie-dyed t-shirts emblazoned with graphic Coachella logos and clip-art cacti, paired with athletic-inspired shorts. The items in the collection are all under $50, and will be available for purchase at an H&M pop up within the festival ground—a first for any brand, although H&M has been a festival sponsor six years running—as well as at national H&M retail locations.

Of course, H&M isn't the first big box-brand to take on the festival's signature look. In 2013, Forever 21 released the Coachella Collection, a similarly hippyish line of lacey crop tops and round sunglasses, accompanied by a lookbook featuring Sky Ferreira. This year, makeup retail giant Sephora will be partnering with the festival on an experiential pop-up within the festival called the DIY Beauty Patio, offering festival-goers a place to refresh their melted makeup, remove some of that dirt with a face mask, and apply the flash tattoos that will no doubt be ubiquitous on arms and collar bones. Outside of the festival grounds, the brands increase in price point significantly—in partnership with Soho House, Harper's Bazaar will be hosting a pop-up shop with designs from the spring collections of Mansur Gavriel, Aurelie Bittermann, Westward Leanings, and Coach, who are celebrating the launch of their bohemian-inspired Tribal Collection in May.

Nostalgia for the Woodstock era is so prevalent in modern culture that it's inescapable, most strikingly in festival fashion. For many, the festival experience has become synonymous with "dropping out," or leaving behind the status quo for a more liberated life off the grid. Despite its corporate underpinnings, Coachella offers community, art, and terrible cell phone service; and for people who can afford the cost of a general admission ticket ($375), that's more freedom than their daily lives will often allow. Whether it's in the Sahara tent or under the shade of a VIP palm tree, people come to Coachella to find their tribe, and to be their ideal, liberated selves. As the proliferation of fashion events around the festival suggests, it's also a place where brands both big and small can find their tribe...of potential customers, willing to pay a high price for the perfect weekend away from everything, enmeshed in the vibes of the desert.

Of course, as Marissa G. Muller recently pointed out in her article on fashion's appropriation of Native American culture, escaping into one's own fantasy world isn't without its perils. For every flowing dress worn to signify its owner's liberation from the constraints of day-to-day life (and pants), there is a nearly-grown man in a headdress, or a lithe young girl posing for a street style photographer, hoping her bindi brings out the color of her eyes. For some people, liberation means freedom from even the most basic elements of decency and cultural respect. While there are no overtly racist or appropriative pieces in H&M's collection, there are influences that approach those of the bindi-wearers in the festival-inspired collections. An H&M maxi dress has roses that resemble Mexican oilcloth, and Coach veers into dangerous territory by calling their collection— woven bucket bags reminiscent of Colombian mochilas— "tribal."

It's not all Woodstock and sartorial free love at Coachella, though. SoulCycle, that temple of fitness and motivational mantras, sent out an email to customers last week advertising their "Festival Collection." Hot off a collaboration with the Spotify House at South By Southwest (during which Soul offered live-DJ rides), the brand was referring to their latest collection of logo-emblazoned sports bras, t-shirts, and stretch pants. Although the only overt musical reference in the line was their Men's SoulCycle Tour Tee—which features the month and year of each studio opening on the back, riffing on tour t-shirts—this alternate take on Coachella style, in addition to jibing with current fitspo and athleisure trends, may have the merit of being a bit better suited to the realities of festival life. Although bohemian-inspired "festival style" might feed into the romantic ideal of a lost weekend in the desert, it's easier to dance in a sports bra and tank top, not to mention survive the sweltering heat.

Of course, SoulCycle is offering an escape fantasy of its own here. You don't have to look farther than the words plastered all over the company's studio walls and graphic tanks—"warrior," "renegade," and "pack"—to grasp the ethos of empowerment, freedom, and rebellion at the heart of the company's messaging. SoulCycle encourages their clients to become one with the music and keep up with the rhythm, pushing themselves physically in the process. This is not unlike the feeling of losing oneself in a festival crowd, dancing with strangers, and allowing the realities of the heat and the dust to push you forward. Still, like Coachella itself, the brand of communal abandon SoulCycle is peddling is, for most people, prohibitively expensive.

That's where the H&M collection—and other fast-fashion iterations of Coachella style—become a little more meaningful than they would seem. As cheesy-looking and poorly suited to the elements as it may be, H&M Loves Coachella at least makes the festival escape fantasy available to everyone, including those who weren't able to afford entry, or who may be content to simply experience it vicariously from afar, on social media. In democratizing Coachella style, it has the merit of reminding us that the festival experience is more than just a dusty weekend in the desert. To people for whom the indulgent freedom of escape is out of reach, that flower-crown might actually mean something bigger—an idea of freedom they can see, but can't quite access, at least not yet.

Lead image: H&M Loves Coachella lookbook.

What People Are Really Looking For When They Buy Festival Clothes