Ever heard of raves before? Maybe? Well, try and picture one in your head. Although many people can’t claim to be part of the underground partying scene, or even to have been to a rave in their life, almost anyone even slightly knowledgeable of underground culture will bring the image to their mind: A swarm of writhing bodies clad in vibrant clothing, dancing under LED lights and flashing neon to the steady undercurrent of bass and synths. Raves have been around for over forty years now, and since their origins in primarily gay dance parties during the eighties, they haven’t changed much since. All you need is a private, enclosed venue, music to play, and people to dance. It’s a basic formula, but rave culture is very distinct, and that’s for a lot of reasons. One thing in particular that has made one of the biggest marks on pop culture is rave fashion. The inspired outfits and accessories of rave-goers have helped define the culture as a cornerstone of celebration around the world.
Raves first began as they’re known under the terms of Thatcher and Reagan. Together, their economic policies entrenched the middle class in warfare against poverty. Lower and middle class people had to deal with decreased funding for social programs, fewer regulations on the free market, and the castration of unions. Before the 80’s, “rave” was a term used to describe hippie get-togethers; however, the expression had died out somewhat, before being mysteriously brought back to brand the new movement. One thing these new partiers had in common with their bohemian predecessors was their sense of style - bright colors and patterns paired with a casual style made the rave scene incredibly cool.
The trademark fashion of late eighties rave culture is what has come to define the movement, at least in the pop culture’s eye. One’s outfit would have a few different components to it - it would likely show off shining colors, like neon. Tie dye was prominently featured in the scene, as another homage to those early bohemians. Athletic wear was an absolute must, as raves were (and are) physically tolling events - you’re there to vibe, dance, sweat, and hydrate. To dress up for a rave was to cave in to societal expectations - ravers didn’t, and for the most part - don’t. Ravers would revel in their dressing down, trading in fine jewelry and designer clothes for cheap plastic necklaces and athletic sweats - raves were the very embodiment of anti-capitalist. They flourished partly as symbols of classist rejection of the greed and excess of the 80’s.
One defining symbol for rave culture is the yellow smiley face - you know, that image you’ve likely seen millions of times before. This image became so widely recognized because it was the symbol printed on flyers for the revolutionary London dance party Shoom - a famed venue that helped launch rave culture into the mainstream. This yellow smiley face began appearing everywhere, from buttons to t-shirts to even being crushed onto the face of ecstasy pills.
Speaking of ecstasy pills, we should probably bring up the connection between drugs and rave clothing. You’d be hard pressed to find a rave shirt that had an anti-drug message, and that’s for good reason - almost all of them are adorned with pro-drug sentiments. Rave fashion has an incredibly pragmatic quality to it, because so many amphetamines cause the users to sweat profusely. Ravers need sweat-wicking fabrics, headbands, short sleeves and shorts to deal with the heat of being high and pressed against other bodies.
Psychedelic colors, intricate patterns, and iridescent fabrics are a must on rave pieces, and pieces are also often cut in unconventional and usually revealing ways. The aforementioned smiley face quickly outgrew Shoom’s mantel and became a symbol for ecstasy itself, and found its way onto the front of necklaces, shirts, headbands, etc. Today, there are dozens of websites offering the sale of rave clothing, all with the same basic trademarks - psychedelic designs on top of athletic wear. It’s impossible to scroll through a rave clothing site without seeing marijuana leaves, fractals, Cheshire Cats, or mandalas. Now, there seems to be a requirement to dress the part when going to raves, which includes purchasing clothes for an event. However, this obviously goes against the original tenets of rave culture, which were simply: Do whatever you like.
Rave clothes were originally very much anti-designer, as people would purposefully go to events in what was considered less-than casual wear. Even in the 80s and 90s, it was considered by many to be disrespectful or even thuggish to show up to a party in what were essentially gym clothes. Nowadays, rave fashion has been reworked and rebranded by designers to be something entirely different. Although true rave culture is obviously all about comfort over appearance, it’s fascinating to see what designers like Alessandro Michele have done to enhance and make elegant what was simply a statement against fashion and the designers in the first place.
Fashion, however, evolves. What started as a movement has become a fashion niche that promises a steady market of young clientele with plenty of disposable income. Raves have in no way gone out of fashion as of yet. They’re a staple of the worldwide party scene, and if anything have become even more appealing. This is because of one core element of rave culture that was never necessarily the core element - secrecy. In the eighties and nineties, there were multiple raves of enormous scale, with no other goal than to attract members. Nowadays, either from fear of police or simply for want of exclusivity, people are really starting to sell the “secret” part of modern raves, keeping them firmly underground and off the beaten track.
In London particularly, teenagers are flocking to raves, with as many as 177 plans for illegal raves being uncovered in 2017. Part of the fun of these illegal raves is getting away with a massive crime. Many raves are held out in the open in London, and people are none the wiser that a rave is going on. This is possible due to ravers using abandoned or empty buildings to host their events - even in downtown London.
These raves can differ wildly in style, from psytrance to drum’n’bass to house & techno. Psytrance typically attracts people of an older crowd, who like to space out on psychedelics in a people-filled environment. As you might’ve guessed, these older ravers tend to dress like the hippies they aspired to be in their own teens back in the eighties and nineties. Drum’n’bass brings in the young people, who really just want to dance their hearts out. These kids are all about dressing to fit in, so they mostly look like they fit right into the nineties - neon, denim and all. House & techno listeners tend to be the most casual dressers of the bunch, as house & techno are arguably the two most popular genres of rave music. People at these raves can look like a variety of things, but if you’re unfamiliar with the rave scene and want to indulge, it might be easier for you to decipher the music based off of the outfits, rather than the other way around.
Overall, rave fashion has evolved past being present solely at raves. As its own distinct subgenre of fashion, you can see people in rave gear at almost any electronica concert or summer music festival. People wear all-over patterns and brilliant colors in order to fit in with everyone else, as everybody’s intention is to stand out. This urge to let loose and revel in pure spectacle brought about so many music festival and concert staples like hula-hooping girls, face paint, henna, and LED gloves. These all originated from rave culture, which is completely built on stimulus and escapism. Every aspect of the rave experience is designed to ensure a super-sensory experience that can overwhelm your mind until all you’re thinking about is dancing to the bass. No more class struggles, no more politics, no religion, no more anything - just the music. That’s exactly what a rave promises, and it’s what its fashion would like to say.
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