An ethnographic study I did for my anthropology class. (Node your homework
) All people discussed in this paper were given pseudonyms
Plumage of the Northern California Raver
Peace. Love. Understanding. Respect. The mantra spoken by the portion of young adults who attend raves, identifying themselves as ravers, or party-kids, or PLUR
-kids, or candy-kids. The possesion of their own jargon is one thing that helps identify them as a distinct subculture. And as such, their practices are worth study. In order to do just this, I attended three raves myself, participated in their rituals, and talked to several ravers alone, apart from all the costumes and music. Originally my impression was that the basis for much of rave culture, and therefore the clothes as well, was the drug MDMA
, or Ecstasy
. Through my research, however, I found this to be untrue. This subculture actually believes in loving everyone, and being friendly and nice at all times, regardless of whether they're on drugs or not. There are many who have never even tried Ecstasy but still follow the tenets of rave culture. Some of their clothes are designed specifically to enhance the MDMA experience, but for the most part the clothes they wear represent their philosophy of love and happiness, as well as being functional for dancing for many hours.
My first field site was a rave in Pittsburg, California, called "Circuit Breaker." It was in an autoglass tinting shop on the edge of town, surrounded by seedy looking hotels and abandoned warehouses. There were big signs out front saying "POLICE FRIENDLY," and security was tight. My companions and I were told by the cop out front that lights and glow-sticks are prohibited, and they will be confiscated if found in use, because, as he said "they're for rolling," referring to the use of Ecstasy. My roommate had to return his photon lights to his car. I went inside, handed over my ticket, and got marked with an X on my right hand. Now I was a member of their group, at least superficially. The main room was a garage, about 50 feet along each side. There were pieces of old equipment covered in black tarps, exposed wooden beams, and corrugated metal walls. The turntables were on the side opposite the door, and flanked by large banners glowing in the blacklight
s. There were a few people dancing in there, but apparently 10:30 PM was still early for a rave.
The second room was through a narrow corridor to the front of the building, and was in what used to be the showroom and offices. It was slightly smaller, but with better lighting, and there were old movie theater seats placed around the edges. A cop stood by the front door of the building, watching the crowd for violations of the Pittsburg paraphernalia
laws. I made some preliminary observations about the clothes people were wearing. I saw a lot of white shirts, on men and women alike. T-shirts or tank tops. Sports bras for the girls. Lots of bright colors, red, blue, pink, yellow, day-glo orange. Primary colors and fluorescents mainly. Some people all in black, or white. Some wearing puffy jackets and headbands. Beads were in abundance, and many of them glowed in the ubiquitous blacklights. A few ravers had their necks completely covered in so called "candy
" necklaces , and their wrists and forearms with candy bracelets. These tended to be the most brightly dressed, and most of them wore visors as well. I noticed a few girls wearing furry
articles of clothing. One had some fuzzy, fluorescent green leggings, another had a furry blue thing covering her midsection. There was also a small group of girls all wearing tight pants or skirts and tight flowery tops. They all had makeup on, and they danced differently than everyone else, their movements were more sexual, the way one would dance in a nightclub. Other people tended to ignore this group, so I don't consider them to represent the raver subculture. The ones dancing by themselves, or in small circles of friends, in tune with the music, and not caring how they look, these are the ones I focused on. There were probably about 200 people there when the party peaked, so I think I observed a pretty good sampling of rave culture.
I began my research in a very unstructured way, really having very little knowledge about rave culture. At first I simply asked about the clothes my chosen subjects had on at the time, and when the word "PLUR
" came up time after time to explain the clothes I started asking about that as well. The first interview I conducted was with a girl of about 19 wearing a homemade bunny suit. It consisted of some big white furry pants complete with tail, a little furry white top, and ears. I sat down next to her in one of the theater seats and asked her to tell me all about her outfit, talking as loudly as I could right in her ear to be heard over the music. "It all started when I got my raver name, 'Bunny,'" she said to me. "My ex-boyfriend gave it to me. And then a friend suggested I make a bunny suit. I like the attention it brings, and it makes people happy to see it, ya know, they'll come up to me and talk to me about it, and it feels good." Next I asked her about the beads. "Basically they're just about trading with people. I'm not really a candy kid, you should talk to her," indicating the girl sitting to my left, covered in beads. I got her attention, shouted the purpose of my research at her over the pounding music, and asked her the meaning behind the beads. "It's about giving. Do you know what PLUR is? Peace Love Understanding Respect. It's all about that mostly, everything's about that." I had heard of PLUR before, but had no idea it would be so central to rave culture.
The last girl I talked to was a friend of my roommate, nicknamed Peanut. She was wearing a red t-shirt, jogging pants, a few beads on her arms, and had her hair in a pony tail. I took her outside to the smoking area so it would be easier to hear, and asked her about the beads. "Well you make these things and bring 'em to give to people, and trade," she said. I asked her if they had anything to do with PLUR, she replied that they did. Next I asked her if there was anything she thought was inappropriate to wear to a rave. "Tight skirts and stuff like that, clubbing clothes, like those sluts
over there," she said pointing to the group of girls wearing spandex
and grinding each other on the dancefloor. That confirmed my suspicion that they were outsiders. When I asked Peanut about all the sun-visors I had seen, she replied that they are just a fashion. This makes sense, considering the sun had been down for more than three hours. She also told me that bright colored clothes are most popular, and some thought about getting attention goes into the decision of what to wear. Judging by the extremely bright outfits I saw inside, I'm quite certain attention has a lot to do with the clothing styles.
The next field site I chose was a free, underground, outdoor rave called "Perception." It was held on a ranch in Vacaville
, owned by Anthony Mad, one of the DJs performing that night. Under a bright full mooon, in the middle of nowhere, hills, ranches, private property, cow droppings and oak trees. Park here, walk down there, high fire danger NO SMOKING
. The sound of a generator giving way to the thump thump thump of the DJ. The turntables are under a tent. Blacklight out front, mirror ball inside making stars appear in the fabric. From the top of another hill the DJ booth looks like an alien spacecraft surrounded by Dionysian
At this party I only observed passively, just watching the people and what they were wearing. Windbreakers, jackets, and even big puffy coats are prevalent in the chill night air. The people dancing weren't wearing as much, they were generating enough heat on their own; I saw a few wearing tank tops despite the low temperature. In contrast, one female dancer wore a blue visor, blue bands around pigtails, a dark colored shirt, and big pants with a big white star on each leg. Backpacks were common at this party, since it was totally underground and nothing was prohibited. We were not searched as we entered, no jumping through hoops to please the cops, only pure rave culture. This is what PLUR is, I realized, trusting other people, respecting them and getting respect in return. I saw a lot of visors, but the only purpose they served was to further obscure the wearer's face, the sun had been down for hours. Peanut was right, they're a fashion, nothing more. There were a lot of hooded sweatshirts. Some people dressed simply in a t-shirt and jeans. A few vests. Jogging pants, athletic gear, name brands, Adidas, Echo, etc. Different articles of clothing put together seemingly at random. A dark vest over a white hoodie with a little yellow plastic backpack. Glowsticks were allowed there, unlike the last one where the cops could tell you no. People were giving lightshows, some wanted to be watched, some were off by themselves. Some entertained the rolling
people on the periphery. They're fast. One color, or flashing Red Yellow Blue making multicolored trails in the dark. I overheard several people on Ecstasy asking the light holders for light shows, but light shows happen regardless, it's part of the dancing in most cases. They're an artifact of a dark environment coupled with fast music. The laws calling light sticks and pen lights paraphernalia
seem ridiculous to me, because the light shows are entertaining regardless of whether or not someone is on E. As Lily Moryeri of Lotus magazine says, glow sticks at raves were outlawed "despite
the fact that every 'NSYNC concert in the world consists of glow stick-touting teens. Are they going to start patrolling boy band concerts for tabs of Ecstasy?" (Lotus
Issue 33:35) Ravers are becoming more and more an oppressed subculture. This is evident in the almost universal fear of cops among ravers. Whenever a car approached with its lights on people would stop dancing, and murmurs would go through the crowd, "Is that a cop?"
The last rave I went to was "Hardcore Uproar" in Sacramento
. It was held in a dance club called Alpha Zone, behind a billiards hall. They were doing a thorough search, like any club would, looking for weapons and probably drugs, but they weren't taking light sticks. Since it was held in a private club the search criteria was up to club policy, and they didn't care about light shows. The club is arranged with a bar area in front, where they were selling water and running a hat check, then the main dance floor, much bigger, probably 75 by 50 feet, three walls lined with giant speakers, and a patio out back. Inside I immediately see several candy kids, tight shirts, baggy pants, visors, and covered in beads. And in contrast there were many young girls wearing clubbing clothes, tight skirts, halter tops, makeup. None of them looked over 18, and probably weren't since this was an all ages party. There were many bikini tops and tight pants. But in contrast one girl is dressed in ripped jeans, a white blouse, and fairy wings, and her boyfriend is wearing a faded tie-dye shirt, baggy pants, a visor, and has his neck and arms covered in bright candy. There was a girl, or possibly a boy, with spiked hair, and a big skirt that looked like it was reincarnated from a different piece of clothing, all in white.
I was introduced to "Kitty Boy," an apparent acquaintance of my roommate. A male, probably about 20, wearing a visor, a necklace of pearl sized metal balls, a blue "Independent" brand shirt, and baggy jeans. He looked just as much like a typical skater as he did a raver. I questioned him about the clothes people wear to raves. "You dress to feel happy, that's basically it." Then I asked about the candy bracelets. "You make them, and then if you meet someone you give them one, and they give you one, so you remember the party and you remember them."
I saw a lot of pacifiers
at this rave as well. The only explanation for that item is that they are for rolling people. None of the people I interviewed even mentioned pacifiers, I'm sure they thought their function was so obvious it didn't need to be stated. And there were in fact many people on Ecstasy at this rave, they were the ones sitting around the perimeter, in tightly packed groups, right in front of, or on top of, the giant speakers. A lot of them were getting light shows from the ever helpful contingent of sober ravers. A friend of my roommate named "Lollipop," wearing a blue zip-up sweater with rainbows on the arms, over a blue tank top, solicited a light show from a girl dancing near me. It was an occurrence I noticed several times through the night. An obviously rolling person would approach someone holding lights and with the universal raver hand signal for light show would request a personal performance. Or conversely, a sober person would approach the obviously rolling people, take their glow sticks and give them a show. Their willingness to do this for each other is a good illustration of the concept of PLUR, at least from my understanding of it.
Most of the informants I talked to mentioned that comfort
was the most important factor in choosing what to wear to a rave. This is understandable, because the main activity at raves is dancing, usually for many hours. It would be important to wear something that breathes well, isn't constricting, and isn't made of a rough material. My informant Enlil
said that he usually wears baggy cargo pants, and a t-shirt to raves, "and sometimes I wear a hat if I don't want people looking at my eyes when I'm rolling." My roommate, Marduk
, who accompanied me to all the raves, tends to dress the same way, but he also sometimes wears a few items of candy. When I asked an acquaintance, Hecate
, what she usually wears to raves, she said she likes "something I won't be too hot in. It's important to be comfortable. I usually wear a tank top. Sometimes I wear stuff like this," indicating the pedal pushers she was wearing. "Comfortable shoes for dancing." My friend Enlil corroborated that statement, saying "Yeah, you want to look comfortable. If you're hot and uncomfortable people can look at you and tell that." Hecate continued "Girls shouldn't wear high heels. The ones that do, you can tell they're uncomfortable, and they can't dance in them." Marduk had this to say about style, "You know you're going to be looked at, so you wear something you want to be looked at in. Because you're in an environment where you can wear just about anything, you wear whatever you want." Proof of this I saw with my own eyes. The outlandish costumes side-by-side plain old street clothes, at every rave. I asked Hecate if PLUR had anything to do with the clothes at raves. She replied that PLUR could have something to do with the clothes, but didn't have to. She went on to say that sometimes people confuse the symbol of the clothes with the idea of PLUR itself.
The clothes are a symbol. A symbol of peace love understanding and respect. Ravers use their unique styles to identify other members of their subculture, other people who understand the importance of PLUR. The colors are happy to them, and by wearing happy colors they try to spread their own happiness to others. The clothes are also a statement to the authorities who continually try to shut down raves, that ravers will continue to exist no matter how many of their sacred rituals are taken away. Take away their lights, and they make themselves fluoresce
in the blacklights. Take away their E toys, and they become E toys for each other by wearing furry clothing. If you tried to take away their beads, they'd just find something else to trade with each other. Many of these people believe strongly in the idea of PLUR, and they will practice these beliefs no matter where they are, at raves, at school, or at home. Representing the idea of PLUR in their clothes is the easiest way to express that to other people. The beads are especially unique to this subculture, and anyone wearing them can immediately be identified as a raver. But, as my informant Osiris
said, some people wear a lot of beads just because they want to appear to be a hardcore raver.
Peoples and Bailey said that there are certain cultural universals that are present everywhere. (Peoples and Bailey 2000:31) Rituals and decorative arts are some of those universals that are present in the raver community. The raves themselves are a type of ritual to these people, and the way they dress is an art, in that they are using it for self expression. From a functionalist point of view, the clothes are designed to be comfortable in a hot environment while the wearer is bouncing around for several hours, as well as occasionally being designed for enjoyment while the wearer is on Ecstasy, or for others who are. This is a perfectly reasonable assumption, provided you recognize that most ravers don't see Ecstasy as the main reason for the existance of raves.
There may be a bias in this project because I purposely avoided mentioning drugs when conducting my interviews. My line of reasoning was that if drugs were a central issue the subject would come up regardless of my questions. A few times they did come up unsolicited, but each time it was from a person who wasn't familiar with the concept of PLUR. My informant Hermes
told me he believed rave culture to be heavily influenced by drugs, in that the clothes people wear create an atmosphere conducive to drug use. But being only an occasional raver, he didn't know anything about PLUR. My informant Eris told me "The furry pants and little vibrating things they wear around their necks are to provide sensory stimulation whilst on mood-enhancing drugs. The glow sticks, mouth glow sticks, white gloves, and penlights are to provide 'light shows' for persons who may or may not be on hallucinogenic substances." She is also only a part time raver, and had to be reminded what PLUR stood for, but did reiterate to me that "It's about the music, not the drugs," reinforcing the viewpoints of almost everyone else I've talked to. There also might be a bias because I didn't talk to as many people as I could have. I have a hard time approaching strangers and introducing myself to them. I only did that with Bunny because she looked like an exceptionally friendly person, in every other case I was introduced to the person by someone else. Overall, I enjoyed this project, and I'm now thoroughly convinced that raves can be enjoyed sober just as well as on Ecstasy. When you gather together a few hundred of the friendliest people in the world, combine them with energetic techno music and lavish light displays, how can you not have a good time?
2001 "Cause & Effect": Lotus Magazine, Issue 33. Sherman Oaks, CA.
Peoples, James and Garrick Bailey
2000 Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Fifth Edition. Belmont , CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.