The Deeper Meaning Behind Music Festival Beauty Through the Ages

Updated 04/05/19
Music Festival Beauty Trends
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In the last week alone, the Byrdie edit team has received over four dozen emails from beauty publicists pitching makeup, hair, and skincare products that beauty lovers simply "must-have" for music festival season. Take a quick scan at any of our inboxes, and you'll find them chockablock with enthusiastic plugs for "flamboyant unicorn hair tints," "exclusive Coachella-inspired palettes," and a refreshing one-ounce face mist advertised as "the perfect size to bring right up to the stage." The first-ever Coachella was held in 1999, a humble, single-day event headlined by Rage Against the Machine. The sun was hot, the plumbing was minimal, and there were no "flamboyant unicorn hair tints" in sight. But in the years since, as music festivals have exploded in popularity, their corresponding beauty trends have morphed into an NYFW-level monster of their own. Festival season lasts roughly from March to August, beginning with Austin's South by Southwest, lasting through the spring with Coachella, New York's Governors Ball, and Tennessee's Bonnaroo, and ending in the summer with Lollapalooza in Chicago and Outside Lands in San Francisco. That's a lot of music to take in. But how you do your hair and makeup for these affairs has become more important than who's playing.

Say the phrase "music festival beauty," and a few unmistakable images come to mind: flower crowns, glittery eye makeup, rainbow braids, sometimes (though hopefully not so much anymore) a culturally questionable headdress or bindi. Brands like Sephora and Riley Rose have been known to release brightly colored products and beauty packages specifically marketed for Coachella. Since when did festival beauty become so over-the-top, you might wonder? And what did it used to look like back when music festivals were still about the music? As it turns out, the evolution of music festival looks has everything to do with the history of American counterculture itself.

Woodstock Music Festival
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There's no denying that over the last five to 10 years, music festivals have burst like a supernova onto the face of American culture—but they didn't begin with Coachella. The first major music fest in the country was, of course, Woodstock, a single weekend in the summer of 1969 that attracted over 400,000 people to the Catskills in New York. Smaller rock, pop, and jazz festivals began popping up all over the country during that period, like the Monterey International Pop Festival and Newport Pop Festival, featuring acts from The Mamas & the Papas and Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. If you looked into the crowd of any of these shows, you wouldn't spot shimmery eye shadow or unicorn hair. "The '60s and '70s were one of the first times people were letting go and showing off natural beauty," explains editorial hairstylist Holly Mills. "It was all about freedom. People were very often fully nude."

Indeed, festival beauty in the Woodstock era didn't involve the curated "music festival beauty prep" subject-lining the many PR pitches in our inboxes. "In the '60s, the hippie movement … was about abandoning the mainstream beauty ideals of the day for something much more raw and in-tune with nature," agrees celebrity makeup artist Frankie Boyd. "The Woodstock look was all about escaping from the oppressive norms of 1950s America and the prim-and-proper look of your parents for something much more countercultural and youthful."

Not to mention, since it rained for most of Woodstock weekend (something unlikely to happen in the Coachella desert)—and since so many psychedelic drugs were present—festival makeup consisted not of highlighter and liquid lipstick but of "body-painting yourself and others with mud." But even the guests who did put thought into their looks beforehand weren't trying to put on a fashion show. "The well-prepared attendees likely took inspiration from Goldie Hawn's iconic look from Laugh-In and covered themselves in peace symbols and daises via DayGlo body paint," Boyd says. Speaking of florals, the flower crowns we still associate with music festivals could definitely be found in the '60s and '70s: The difference is that they were made out of real flowers, found in the woods, and woven or braided into the hair.

Lollapalooza 2003
Lollapalooza

As American politics and mainstream culture evolved over the next few decades, so too did the desires of the artsy rebel types on society's fringe, aka the sorts of people who attend music festivals. By the time the late '90s arrived, Woodstock's flower crown-wearing audience had aged out of the market, and angsty Gen X and Gen Y took their place. "Music festivals in the 1990s like Lollapalooza (created by Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction) and the alt-rock/grunge movement was all about dilapidated, baby-doll glamour," says Boyd. "Thinly tweezed brows, distressed black eye makeup, powdered pale skin, and smudged red lips à la Hole frontwoman Courtney Love." The '90s festival look was built on an angsty, anti-establishment attitude, "a pushback on the still highly conservative excess of the late '80s and early '90s," says Boyd.

The grunge vibes didn't last long, however. By the mid-2000s, big multiday music festivals were on the rise, and so was the internet, which caused beauty trends to evolve and spread differently. "This new wave of large-scale music festivals … coincided with Napster coming out, the release of the iPod, and people and artists engaging with the internet to connect," said Jonathan Mayers, co-owner of music festival production company Superfly, in a 2015 Racked article.

In the years since, social media, especially Instagram, has played an increasing role in how festival beauty trends develop. As Noisey style editor Kim Taylor Bennett told Racked, attendees are no longer "as concerned with the experience as much as they are with what they're going to project later on social media." In other words, when festivalgoers pack their makeup for Coachella, they're thinking, how will this look on Instagram?

At its worst, social media's effect on festival beauty encourages the spread of some culturally appropriative images. For example, a few years ago, you could find bindis and feathers (sacred symbols of wisdom and honor in certain South Asian and Native American communities) all over white Coachella attendees. Before discussions of cultural appropriation hit the mainstream media, these folks had clearly spotted the looks on Pinterest or Instagram, though they were pretty, and didn't think to look into them any further before placing an order at some fast-fashion retailer and cueing up their favorite filters.

Coachella 2017 Beauty
Leyla Rose

Luckily, we've evolved past the most egregious examples of cultural appropriation at music festivals. In fact, due to the elections, current events, and tragedies that have occurred over the past couple of years, America's political climate has in many ways returned to the revolutionary atmosphere that existed during the 1960s Woodstock era. Where beauty and art are concerned, "we're living in an amazing time of acceptance and inclusivity," comments Mills.

For that reason, the spirit of those original bohemian looks has stood the test of time. "Trends have evolved with the products and tools that have become available, like bright hair colors and sparkles, but the same free-spirited vibe remains the same," says Mills. "We still see flower crowns, [but] now they are mass-produced by companies like Forever 21 and H&M. We still see braids, [but] today YouTube exists, so the braids and hairstyles are way more evolved and intricate in some cases."

Today's music festival trends have become even more fantastical than flower crowns and braids, though. "Last year at Coachella, we saw a lot of colorful wigs and colored hairpieces," comments Jessica Elbaum, celebrity hairstylist and the key stylist on Modern Family. "Glitter hair, boxer braids, and fewer flower crowns and beachy waves." Boyd agrees that music festival looks are only moving farther left of center. Now, "the look is all about ethereal, magical-girl looks featuring iridescent shimmer, holographic glitter, colored hair, and unicorn fantasies," he says.

Of course, part of the motivation for these new extremes is that the louder the look, the more double-taps you're likely to get on Instagram. But the other part is that we're living in a time when experimenting with your identity, being your zaniest self, and sticking it to social intolerance are the coolest things you can do with beauty. And music festivals, these massive cultural events that connect hundreds of thousands of creative-minded young people, are the perfect places to do that. "I think the looks will just get bigger and broader," predicts Boyd. "Pure fantasy as people explore looks without judgment. The more outlandish and surreal, the better."

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