Festival Culture


Here at CSF we have been thinking a lot about cities, citizenship and the idea of what is means to wear your culture. As we reach the height of summer, I just can’t avoid thinking about how some of these ideas might apply to festivals. After all, what are festivals if not temporal, informal cities to which every wristband wearer is an active citizen for at least a few days, before it all disappears for another year?

Last month, I  along with 32,000 other revellers from the UK, Europe and beyond, flocked to Cambridgeshire for the Secret Garden Party. Reconfirming there is nothing quite like a festival in the UK, it was an explosion of diversity with people of different backgrounds, ages and sexualities, all coming together to be a part of one community and enjoy great music together. There were no bankers, teachers, designers or any other title we live by in our day-to-day existence, just a somewhat familiar sense of freedom, and the understanding that we were all in this together.

For the past 100 years fashion and music have worked together and informed each other to influence human culture. Together, they represent a time and a place, cross boundaries and offer us a way to express our values both individually and collectively. Festivals are an example of this relationship at its highest intensity, combine this with a strong connection to nature and you are left with a kind of wild self-expression, which is rarely seen en mass. Putting aside the controversy around cultural appropriation at festivals (another blog post, another time), when it comes to fashion at festivals (especially SGP) there is an unwritten agreement that all reservations and judgments are to be left at home, there is only room for love, curiosity, good-spirited giggles and occasionally, surprise.

I loved seeing girls dance in ball gowns they had freed from their cupboards to give new life and purpose to, I was curious about the boys in impeccably tailored suits, and how they were surviving on what had to be the hottest day of the year, I giggled at the child-like randomness of many (myself included), and I was surprised at the number of roaming naked bodies I saw (no judgement!).

As informal cities, festivals are not without their problems, for years organisers have been focused on how to reduce energy use, waste and emissions. We have seen more and more sustainability initiatives and campaigns around education and awareness from the likes of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam on sites, but I’m not sure if this has led to better behaviour from participants. It seems as though the same festival wildness, which releases our inhibitions and self-expression, also brings out the best and worst in us as a community of citizens.

So, what was the worst? People ripping up sunflowers as keepsakes from the field, which was grown for us and the bees to enjoy (though only if you found the entrance through a fake toilet door), and rubbish, everywhere, so much rubbish that on the Sunday it was a struggle to find somewhere to sit. Then there are those cherished moments of sharing, when you lend someone an air pump in exchange for a brownie or someone gifts you their programme because they are happy to share with a friend. But the most magical moment of my four days took place on the Saturday night, with a need to use the toilet when they were possibly at their worst, I walked into a cubicle to find it lit up by a tealight – it had been cleaned, and there was a fresh roll of toilet paper. I checked the other cubicles afterwards, it was just that one I serendipitously chose. Whoever you are, I say thank you, and may we all be inspired to be more active citizens in both our festival and everyday lives.