The weekend long music festival Coachella in Indio, California used to be about the musical performances, but has transformed itself into a celebrity infected spectacle. The spotlight has moved away from the stage and shone onto celebrity fashion. With the popularity of social media, these outfits are instantaneously shared with the world and accounted for by fashion blogs and catch the attention of popular fashion chain stores and sequentially are mass-produced.
The festival takes place in the vast and high temperature California desert and its popularity is attributed to the hippie mentality of “camping out”, but indie spirit of “rocking out.” Similar to other festivals/carnivals, Coachella falls into the practice discussed by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White (From Carnival to Transgression) of a populist utopian experience manifested in excess i.e drinking, drugs, and partial nudity. The festival is “a mobile set of symbolic practices, images and discourses”(297). For those three days, Coachella participants live in a fantasy world and the fantasy is reflected in their attire. During the festival one’s outfit does not abide to the accepted societal form of conduct, the context allows for role-play and costume. Playing dress up is a part of the spectacle, but participants “briefly enjoy and deduce pleasure from the experience, but ultimately expel the commodification forgetting and moving on to something else.” (Hooks)
The fashion faux pas associated with Coachella and other festivals concerns cultural appropriation. According to Fred Davis in his article “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” fashion is context dependent and under-coded, “we need to know the context in order to understand the meaning; it cannot stand-alone” (Davis, 153). Coachella’s original fashion context was a juxtaposition of hippie and indie rocker. Currently the liberal dress context of the festival has unfortunately promoted the appropriation of cultural artifacts i.e bindis and Native American headdresses as accessories. Band T-shirts and flower headbands are no longer fashionable enough and starlets are seeking inspiration elsewhere. The concern is the association of bindis and Native American headdresses to festivals because of their popularity amongst celebrity participants and the consequential disassociation to their cultural origin.
To appropriate is to make use of without authority; the disconnect between the origin of the trend and the intended symbolic meaning of the attire makes the appropriation of foreign cultural artifacts problematic. Adornments embedded with historical, religious and cultural context are de-contextualized and become mass produced objects with no ideological connotation. According to Hindu statesman Rajan Zed:
“The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance. It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol … It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.”
On the other hand Native American headdresses are symbols of respect. One earned a headdress for positive and powerful influence on the tribe and acts of bravery.
Overall the festival capitalizes on “white kids playing Indian ” on a land ironically stolen from American Indians. The privileged white young females frolicking around Coachella’s lawn adorning both the bindi and Native American attire emphasize the feeling of superiority and disrespect to non-white communities and the subjugation faced by the marginalized communities from where their accessories originate. The purpose of fashion at Coachella was of self-expression. In the vast desert and amongst thousands of people, a participant distinguished oneself through mode of dress, highlighting their individual personality. Now the biggest attention is garnered towards the individual expressing the most identities, example being the awarded queen of Coachella Vanessa Hudgens, Kendall Jenner and Selena Gomez.
The biggest cause of concern is the proliferation of these trends into mainstream. The power of these fashionistas is so impressive; they are chosen to be brand ambassadors for Topshop, Forever XXI, and even McDonalds. These celebrities however do not go unscathed by their choices of appropriation. They are also subject to criticism about their lack of sensitivity towards the culture they are disrespecting. Hashtags have been created and blogs solely devoted to the inconsiderate appropriations #DontTrendOnMe and #NativeAppropriation. People have openly voiced their sentiments towards these stars/fashionistas online. Selena Gomez received backlash for her appropriation of the bindi at a music award show performance and refrained from wearing it for the rest of her tour. At Coachella however, where political correctness is “overlooked” in the spirit of festival aforementioned, the twenty something singer/actress wore the bindi on multiple days.
Hix in her article “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans” explains this form of appropriation as a ” version of “cultural thievery”, it lessens Native American fashion to a costume,” like children playing dress up” (pg 16). It is as if these cultural appropriators believe the festival makes an excuse for political incorrectness on the assumption of costumery. They forego that the original users of these ornaments do not have the same agency over whether to put on or take off a bindi/headdress; they are not a part of a costume, but a part of themselves as a human being. By detaching the meaning of their cultural artifacts, one is belittling a form in which these people identify and understand themselves.
Hix, Lisa. “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans.” Collectors Weekly. N.p., 01 Dec. 2011. Web. 06 May 2014.
Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other:Desire and Resistance.” Readings for Analytical Writing. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008. 301-16. Print.
Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. “From Carnival To Transgression.” The Subcultures Reader: Second Edition. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 293-301. Print.