In May 1992, the biggest illegal rave in UK history sparked the moral panic that would lead to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. For those on the ground at Castlemorton, it was a hedonistic seven-day event that represented all that was good and true of rave culture. For the establishment it marked the end of days. The Act signalled the free party phenomenon’s final curtain but it didn’t dampen the revellers’ renegade spirit and the will to party survived. The warehouse gigs and festivals of today can trace their lineage directly back to the young pioneers and the wild, unlicensed parties of the ‘80s and ‘90s rave scene.
Matt Smith, a photographer, social historian and author of ‘Exist to Resist’, spent decades documenting the culture from the front line. “It is an enduring validation of the desire to gather, celebrate and dance together that one of our most successful creative industries grew out of rave to become the modern festival market. That evolution is ongoing and from around five legal festivals when I first began shooting the culture that has dominated my lifetime, there are now hundreds every summer.”
Defined by a spirit of togetherness and a determination to ‘make some noise’, rave was the natural result of a young generation battling the status quo through music, dance and style. Free parties sprang up across the UK overnight, sound-tracked by the euphoric tunes of dance, acid house and techno. The young were liberating themselves from the confines of a stuffy British past and marking themselves out as different to their hippy forebears. But much like their predecessors, this was a spontaneous movement about freedom and friendship, bringing together diverse groups from different backgrounds and subcultures and spawning some of its own in overcrowded fields packed with sound systems and dancing strangers. Follow the trail of tinnies and thumping beats and you might find the party, somewhere near a disused industrial estate just off the M5.
Image: Matt Smith
Rave’s resurgence as a trend in fashion is symbolic of a longing for something past – the acid house prints and bucket hats represent a time of simplicity, before iPhones, Instagram ads and drop queues, when people made their own fun and printed T-shirts in garages. The homemade aesthetic is an artefact – a remnant of a time that can’t be relived (because the old bill would shut it down) and one of our means of recreating it. The irony that a movement built on the anti-establishment rejection of societal mores should now be adopted by the ultimate fashion establishment – luxury – isn’t lost on us. But the appeal is obvious – by returning to the original 1990s aesthetic, we get to plug in to a lost form of hedonism that people like Smith remember well.
“When the whirlwind cultural melting pot of rave first hit the UK in the mid to late ‘80s with its blend of acid house, old skool and techno it brought people in their tens of thousands together in celebration to clubs, warehouses and fields across the country. As it morphed into genre and sub-genre it took fashion with it on a euphoric trip into psychedelia. There was a time when it lived in baggy Osh Kosh dungarees, mutant trainers, coloured Lennon shades and psychedelic flower pot hats.” Not dissimilar to the ugly trainers, coloured lenses and whacked-out shirts of today’s most feted international designers.
Image: Matt Smith
Tracing the history of rave through clothes, Smith’s recollection of the movement’s sartorial development through the decades speaks for itself. “Tops off, crop tops, crewcuts and tracksuit bottoms. Hands-in-the-air DJ worship in praise of a dance-inspired euphoria and community that had previously been unheard of in staid old Britain. Rave brought the crust of the new age traveller community together with super smart inner-city casuals and black clad Buffalo-booted devotees of the Spiral Tribe.” Spiral Tribe was a London-based collective with the tagline ‘Free Party, Free Future, Free People”, which sums up the vibe. Rave didn’t discriminate and nor did its followers. The movement proved a breeding ground for looks that are now considered iconic. “Post-criminalisation, rave moved back into the clubs and through garage and drum and bass the designer look of Versace, Gucci and Armani emerged as all the rage. Concurrently the fluoro-fluffy-booted, toyed-up look of the smiley culture sucked on its dummies and blew on its whistles turning the super club brands into fashion statements.”
Whilst fashion might be considered throwaway, the legacy of rave culture is not. It is perhaps the finest example of the British bacchanalian spirit challenging the establishment and its contribution to fashion and culture will be felt as long as the people want to party. As Smith defiantly puts it; “Rave never went away. As the music has changed and evolved over the last three decades the culture has infiltrated almost every part of society from grimy inner-city tower blocks to the hills and fields of the West Country to the gilded palace of Westminster itself as it looks to buy into the enduring popularity of a previously criminal culture.” Rave on.
Image: Matt Smith
All images: Matt Smith, with special thanks to the Youth Club Archive