This weekend sees the return of Coachella after a three-year pandemic-induced hiatus. And, as ever, there will be as much written about the festival’s fashion as its performances.
But while the event was once classed among the most stylish outings on the cultural calendar — thanks to its celebrity attendees and exclusive adjacent parties hosted by a growing list of fashion brands, from Lacoste to H&M — recent editions have hardly set the tone for the rest of the summer.
In truth, the annual festival has never recovered from the fashion faux pas of the past decade. In particular, there are some images that have proven especially difficult to shake: that of festival-goers sauntering across the desert in faux-Native American feathered headdresses or with their foreheads adorned with South Asian bindis (or sometimes both).
A festival-goer attends Coachella in 2015. Credit: Rachel Murray/Getty Images North America
The festival’s reputation for cultural appropriation and insensitive clothing choices was also amplified by the tone-deaf fashion of celebrities in attendance.
Coachella’s attendees were, by no means, the only offenders. In 2012, model Karlie Kloss apologized for wearing a floor-length headdress on a Victoria’s Secret runway and, throughout the decade, the evolution of “boho chic” into something more problematic was taking place at festivals across the globe. But while organizers of Britain’s Glastonbury Festival moved to ban on-site sales of Native-style headdresses in 2014 — as did several Canadian music festivals and, later, San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival — they persisted in the Coachella Valley.
Guests attend Coachella in 2014. Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella
The evolution of ‘boho’
“Boho chic” may now carry uncomfortable connotations, but it began in seemingly innocent fashion in the early 2000s. Short for “bohemian,” in honor of the ’60s and ’70s hippy ensembles that inspired it, the term became a sartorial catch-all for suede fringing, crochet halter-necks and paisley print.
A festival-goer in April 2014 wearing a flower crown. Credit: Diana Fields/Getty Images for Coachella
Sienna Miller at Glastonbury Festival in 2004. Credit: Andy Butterton/PA Images/Getty Images
It was only then, presumably when chunky belts, bare feet and tousled hair failed to shock the fashion world, that boho became more experimental — and more offensive.
A new identity
But online criticism of such campaigns eventually trickled down to the festival world. Paul sees recent attempts to call out culturally insensitive Coachella fashion as a triumph in the battle for representation and education. “The internet has provided a platform for that response to be given to those acts of racism and appropriation, which is great,” she said. “I think why we’re seeing this pushback now is because the internet allows us to have a bigger, louder voice.”
An attendee wears a fringed bikini to the 2015 edition. Credit: Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Coachella
By the most recent Coachella, in 2019, there were still plenty of flowy skirts and fringed crop-tops on display — but the worst examples of cultural appropriation had effectively been banished from view. Whether attendees can restore the fashion-forward reputation of the festival’s heyday is, however, another question entirely.
For Paul, whose work spotlights Native American designers, creatives and artists, festivalgoers could look to demonstrate appreciation over appropriation by investing in communities directly.
“It just seems so obvious to me,” she said. “Just treat people equally. But obviously, there’s always going to be a power imbalance, there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Top image caption: Guests attend Coachella in Indio, California in 2014.