When deciding what to wear to a rave, it helps first to consider your objective: Do you want to look hot? Dress for the weather? Express your personal style?
Or should your outfit simply complement the drugs you plan to do?
Since raves kicked off in late-1980s England, fashion trends have gone through countless evolutions. In the early '90s, you wouldn't have looked out of place in Doc Martens, denim overalls and a dust mask lined with Vicks VapoRub. Nowadays you wouldn't look crazy in neon lingerie combined with Native American headdress.
See also: Hilarious Raver Photos From the '90s
The oft-gaudy, dizzying convergence of styles – borrowed from sources as varied as cartoon characters, Rastafarianism, the goth scene and '70s psychedelic culture – seem random and arbitrary on their face. In fact, rave fashion has evolved alongside the scene itself, which was driven in its first days by American house music, ecstasy and the influence of Ibiza's club scene.
British DJ powerhouses Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling and Nicky Holloway are given credit for helping to popularize the music and ethos of the early underground rave scene. They took their first hits of ecstasy in the summer of 1987, while on vacation together in Ibiza. The euphoric, throbbing beats of the Spanish island's unique DJ sound – called Balearic, and combining styles such as early house music, Europop and upbeat rock – suddenly made more sense on drugs. The three men pledged then and there to bring their experience back to England.
Oakenfold and Rampling opened electronic music clubs, and Holloway started a venue focused on psychedelic-tinged subgenre acid house. Ecstasy, though illegal, was tolerated, and the scene inspired a change in typical nightclub fashion.
At the time, many clubbers wore designer garb. “The goal was to stand at the bar and look cool,” Oakenfold says now from his Los Angeles home. But designer duds gave way to Converse sneakers and oversized tees, which were more conducive to sweating and dancing the night away on ecstasy. “Literally overnight, rave fashion took over the high street, and people were interested in dressing down,” he says.
By 1989, the new chic club look was baggy and colorful – visually stimulating for folks who were high. Kids wore overalls, smiley-face T-shirts, paisley and tie-dye. Toy whistles and bright plastic beads replaced fine jewelry, as club style went from bourgeoisie to bohemian, drawing influences from the dressed-down clubbers of Ibiza and Summer of Love psychedelic imagery.
But venues couldn't stay open all night, so the club kids moved to abandoned buildings, airplane hangars and open fields. When the rave scene spread to America, U.K. transplants brought their ostentatious garb to the first raves in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
California soon became an important rave hub, one where a new style began to dominate: Hip-hop-influenced kids introduced Adidas shell toes and baggy sweatpants, with colorful surf- and streetwear mixing in.
See also: Our slideshow of '90s rave fashions
“You'd get kids who would come for the hip-hop and funk … the good-looking surfer guys and chicks, and then you had all the arts and fashion community,” recalls Steve Levy, who in the early '90s ran a popular club night called Truth at the Park Plaza Hotel in Westlake.
During that time, an artsy student who attended these parties started creating graphic tees. Rick Klotz's company, Freshjive, parodied popular corporate branding; one shirt substituted “Truth” in the Tide detergent logo, while other works put a spin on Twister, Crayola and 7-Eleven's Big Gulp. “Freshjive, outside of Stussy, was the most important early-'90s brand that was touching rave wear and streetwear,” says Raymond Roker, founder of URB magazine.
Surf and skate companies like Clobber, Quiksilver and Conart got in on the action, too, catering to ravers with bright, loose-fitting logo gear. Boutiques like Beat Non Stop began popping up on Melrose, offering extreme wide-leg JNCO pants. NaNa in Santa Monica had the chunky Converse sneakers and Doc Martens.
[By the mid-1990s, everyone was dressing like grade-school kids, in giant furry-animal suits, Mickey Mouse gloves, Dr. Seuss hats and pony bead bracelets. You might have seen a girl dancing to Sasha & John Digweed sporting glitter gel in her pigtails, with a feather boa, rainbow suspenders and a tiny, stuffed-animal backpack. The dude with her might have had a full-body Pac-Man costume, or a Tickle Me Elmo puppet on his arm. Meanwhile, ravers sucked on pacifiers to alleviate teeth grinding, while the strong scent from the dust masks smeared with Vicks intensified the ecstasy's euphoric effects.
A bit disturbing? Maybe. But the raves – with names like Grape Ape, Camp Snoopy and Smurfs of the Enchanted Forest – were a chance to feel like a kid again, the ultimate escape from young-adult responsibilities. Even today, attendees wear, essentially, Halloween costumes to events with names like Winter Wonderland.
Mixing in were the club kids, who dressed up as anything from angels and Hindu deities to Cirque du Soleil – like characters. Club kids gained popularity at famous '80s-era New York clubs like the Limelight and the Palladium; much of the fashion was do-it-yourself, and many were cross-dressers or gay youth who had found a vital form of self-expression. By the early '90s, L.A. club kids sported everything from furry boots and gothic fetish wear to nipple pasties.
See also: A Look Back at Rave Fashion in Photos
Parties from the Western United States became increasingly influential as well. Molly Hankins, editor at EDM-focused TheBPM.net, stresses the influence of the provocative costumes at the electronic-heavy desert festival Burning Man, which features anything from armored Mad Max – style costumes to whimsical fairy or unicorn getups. “Burning Man is all about radical self-expression,” Hankins says.
Though it seemed poised for a mainstream explosion, by the early aughts the rave scene had lost momentum, partly due to government crackdowns. But by the end of the decade it was bigger than ever, and we now live in the era of gigantic, corporate EDM festivals and DJ music on mainstream radio.
[As for the fashion? It's more sexualized than ever. Whereas style once had a utilitarian function – you could store your keys in those baggy pants, after all – it now seems to be an arms race toward nudity. (No matter what the temperature.)
Sure, you still see kandi bracelets and cartoon outfits. And some elements of hippie culture remain, which could explain those deplorable Native American headdresses. But baggy jeans have been traded in for booty shorts and tutus, and tie-dye crop tops have been swapped for bras covered with daisies.
“We live in a much more sexualized time, especially if you look at the ready availability of porn imagery,” Roker says. “Aesthetic beauty is hyper-real and hyper-important, and it wasn't like that back in the day.”
If the early underground Midwestern house-music parties and club-kid scene was largely about giving repressed kids a safe space to be themselves, the now-mainstream EDM scene seems to be about giving girls from the suburbs a chance to show off their butts. “Raver kids were the freaks and geeks, and they aren't anymore,” Levy says.
L.A.-based DJ Fei-Fei says: “Back then, a lot more people were solely there for the music. Now half the people [at raves] don't even know the music.”
And there's no doubt that many DJs themselves contribute to this sexed-up atmosphere. Sure, dance music has always been stimulating, but genres like dubstep seem to be intruding on our brain chemistry. “Every [EDM] song has a drop – it's orgasmic,” Roker says.
Perhaps it comes down to this: For the same reason that London clubbers wanted to rebel against the designer dress code, today's kids want to wear something that's not acceptable most anywhere else. It's a chance to feel hot and, hopefully, shock your parents on your way out the door.
Rave culture, then and now, remains fixated on fantasy, on stepping out of everyday life. And that's true whether you're donning an XXL shirt, a Super Mario costume or a sequined bikini.
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