Exploding Inevitable: The Greatest Hits of Rave Fashion
Rave fashion never stops. That’s because at its heart, self-expression to the beat weaves in and out in countless directions. Like the music it reflects, it’s electromagnetic, a lighting-stricken amoeba forever wending in the tides and tears of space-time.
That’s why in some ways, it doesn’t exist at all. It’s a radical spirit, not a trend. Sometimes it’s a glorious mess. Other times, it transmits style in perfect waves. Anything goes, as it remixes the world and refracts it back into kaleidoscopic dreams, from a Rubik’s Cube of ironic pop references to Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, projecting lava lamp phantasms onto countless grooving frames.
In recent years, designers like Jeremy Scott and Roberto Piqueras have harkened back to the psychedelic explosion of the late 1980s and early 1990s with star sunglasses, holographic tights and cotton-candy hair. At Electric Daisy Carnival, dancers have given us dressed-down animalism and bead masks that evoke witch doctors stepping out of a Nintendo video game. Burning Man has put on its stamp, too, bringing in steampunk and Mad Max survivalism.
There’s a reason for this feverish mutation. Since the early days of modern dance culture, what people wore out clubbing was as much a statement about identity as throwing down new shapes on the dancefloor. While pinning down specific cause-and-effect is tricky, some equations do emerge: wild plus colorful equals liberation, futuristic going retro flips time, nature fractures urban into anarchy, deconstruction leads to minimal and pragmatic, before cycling all over again.
Whether it’s spirit hoods, neon boas, space vixen vinyl, furry overalls, baggy jeans or smart suits, rave wear never rests. So, here are some snapshots in time—mythical archetypes that loom out of history’s smoke machine.
1985 to 1994
From luxury brands to high heels to tennis shoes, the post-disco look was as much new wave and punk as it was leather jackets and Levi’s jeans. From New York’s Paradise Garage, where artist Keith Haring and designer Patricia Field held court, to Detroit’s techno scene, where suburban black kids dressed up in classy European brands (“Shari Vari!”), to Dallas’ Starck Club (oil money meets Grace Jones worship), proto-rave fashion was a mixture of The Breakfast Club (think feathered hair), urban street flair and downtown artsy.
Going Balearic and Acieed Teds:
Once house and techno found a new home in England in 1988 by way of Ibiza’s endless weekend—set to the explosive squiggles of acid house—loose dungarees, Day-Glo prints, bandanas and big smiley-face T-shirts became the norm at famous rave spots like London’s Shoom and Manchester’s Hacienda. The message was clear: dance, dance, dance, and hug it out.
Come One, Come All, Come Overalls:
As soon as the rave revolution began, a dynamic emerged between utility, dressing up and visual exaggeration. Baggy jeans, roomy for angular dance moves, became sine qua non. The iconic comfy look par excellence arrived with denim overalls and jumpsuits. Combined with baseball caps, Kangol bucket hats, whistles, visor beanies and T-shirts, this ready-to-rave formula persisted well into the 1990s.
Club Kids and Flower Power:
New York City “Club Kids” mixed costumes from every era, evoking Salvador Dalí clowns and Jackson Pollock astronauts, sporting gigantic platform boots, swirling patterns with lush velvets, glittering vambraces, coned hair, silver and gold body paint, cross-dressing and gender-bending. At the same time, Lady Miss Kier and Deee-Lite kitsched it up with “Groove Is in the Heart” daisy chains and 1970s tropes, including headbands, hoop earrings and tight plaid.
Fresh Tide You Don’t Stop:
Out West, at clubs like Tef Foo’s Lost Angels and Truth, the wily remix of colorful brands like Tide, 7-11 and Captain Crunch reflected a California sense of mischief, much of it courtesy of the hybrid B-boy skater rave threads epitomized by Fresh Jive and Stussy. Many of these instincts came from a surfer punk and hip-hop sensibility, but rave gave it the psychedelic flair of a skateboard acid ollie.
Mad Hats in Toon Town:
From “gravers” (goths who rave) to mad hatters (party pranksters looting Lewis Carroll) the fantasists arrived as raves got bigger and bolder in Europe and America. Everything went floppy and cartoony and oversized: big rings, big jewelry, big sunglasses, big daisies, big Dr. Seuss hats and Mickey Mouse gloves. It was a video game Atari teenage riot, a funhouse fashion to match the larger-than-life beats, the hardcore riffs, the animation of the imagination.
1995 to 2004
Cool Cats and Chin Strokers:
A more chic and subtle skin emerged as the first wave of ravers entered their mid 20s and 30s. Hanging out after-hours became as important as hitting the dancefloor—chilling out and waxing reflective. From wool-collared peacoats, leather jackets, tall fur hats, color sunglasses and Barbarella-style femme fatale, to thick corduroy baggy pants, pimp rave robes, bleached hair, goatees and Adidas tracksuits, most veteran ravers adopted comfort and cool—hipsterism in a crystal ball.
Candy Kids Lost in the Supermarket:
The first generational rift in rave culture began with “kandi,” a childlike look rife with pacifiers, big colorful jewelry, Charlie Brown shirts, spray glitter, dyed hair, giant hair knots à la Björk, pigtails, glowsticks, candy charm arm bands, and stuffed-animal backpacks. Most ravers, kandi or not, pilfered thrift stores and streetwear, from super baggy jeans (JNCO), canvas khakis (X-Large), small tees and skirts (X-Girl) and Ben Davis T-shirts, to three-stripe track jackets, vintage ski sweaters and sports jerseys.
Rave, the Final Frontier:
Outer space mixed with ‘90s internet utopianism put most ravers in a cosmic mood. They could feel the future at their fingertips. Many invoked an optimistic frontier, wearing blinking lights, Star Wars and NASA caps, big bug-eye sunglasses à la Roswell “Grey” aliens, mylar coats and pants, holographic shirts, tanks and jackets, hoodies with alien logos (think Plastikman’s octopus guy), and big space-Rastafarian beanies. Bands like Orbital and Eat Static were the sonic analog.
We Are The Robots:
By the late ‘90s into the early ‘00s, rave was going minimal. Everyone started to edit down in search of some lost essence. The first Matrix film was all the rage, too. Richie Hawtin’s black-suited/black-rimmed glasses/bald android look was a clear echo as he, Jeff Mills and others pushed the music into colder directions. Snowboarder jackets by Spiewak, Dub and Phat Farm emphasized the stoic. Diesel, Kikwear, Caffeine, Miss Sixty and Snug projected control.
2005 to 2015
Mad Max and the A&R Thunderdome:
At Burning Man, a new style was booming that embraced eco and sustainability. Away from the clubs or the media glare, as rave was declared dead once again, its vector points shifted: pilot goggles, leather harnesses, gas masks, utility belts, spikes, LED ropes and showy wigs—Road Warrior meets Avatar. Back in the city, clubs seemed more like A&R conventions, the color drained out to the desert, with lots of suits lounging at the bar, still scratching their heads over Napster.
Nu Rave, Put Your Circuits in the Sea:
In the UK and Europe, a nostalgic blend of post-punk and acid house, called nu rave, hit courtesy of the Klaxons with lots of color, splashed paint and grill glasses. Daft Punk’s lava-lit tennis volley to Kanye West’s bizarre 2008 Grammy performance was its discotheque reflection. It was the start of patching together a neo-tribal look with spirit hoods, neon headdresses, Jolly Rancher hair and feral, tattered clothes. Think Lord of the Flies meets the lost kids of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” video stepping into a black-lit rave swamp.
Carnivalesque, Here Come the Wild Things:
“Decom” parties brought a Burner resilience back to raves while longstanding EDM festivals like Nocturnal Wonderland and Lightning in a Bottle blended club kid with Club Med, a kind of peyote-infused vision of “unicorns” in the desert. With LED technology cheap enough for crafters, audio-reactive diodes signaled the return of the future while performance troupes like Lucent Dossier crystallized a Jules Verne circus style fit for Versailles on the moon.
Hipster Invasion and the “Skrill”:
The rockers, rappers and goths finally got the telegram. They gravitated via Brooklyn and Silver Lake—the flash of electroclash, LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” Daft Punk, and the heavy drop of dubstep. Big white tees returned with tight dark jeans and nylon jackets, hair-flipping to an ‘80s acid flashback with the emo side-shave of Skrillex; cue Richie Hawtin, Maya Jane Coles and Miley Cyrus with the asymmetric head buzz. Part punk. Part rattail. Part poodle. Drenched in a rainbow hair-dye explosion, the new century accelerated down its Fury Road.
Home of the Rave, Land of the Free:
All calculating restraint goes to the wind from time to time. At festivals like EDC or Coachella, younger ravers these days bring a twist, dressing down in the heat of Las Vegas or Palm Springs. It’s Brazil’s Carnival meets the pixel-bead parade; wearing the future like a weapon, kandi-masked natives cast off the hate machine to shake Babylon down to the beat. The human form emerges with spandex, speedos, bikinis and shorts, ripped-sleeve shirts, headbands and armbands and wristbands and Ray-Bans, vest hoodies, and once again, an amalgamation of everything that came before.
Through the years, the most common look didn’t follow any particular code for long—fabric mixed with the speed of electrons to give people their own personal algorithm. It’s a two-way interface, osmotic and confident; the invitation to experiment is always there, but the real fun of rave fashion is the freedom to show up however you want. Nirvana was onto something with 1991’s “Come as You Are,” but rave steamed right past to the infinite loop—it’s what’s inside that matters most.
Special thanks to Michael Tullberg and Beau McGavin for the photo contributions.
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