As Abu Dhabi readies itself for Creamfields, one woman dusts off her Lycra bodysuit and hopes that the British dance festival will bring its tradition of eccentric dressing along for the ride.
What could be more normal than shedding one's suit on a Thursday night, pulling on a pair of skin-tight silver trousers, gelling one's hear into spikes and dancing like crazy? Such is the thought process of a particular species of music fans: the festival crowd. You see them all over the world, from Burning Man in the US, to Glastonbury in the UK and Benecassim in Spain, strolling from stage to stage in fat suits and astronaut gear, as pantomime donkeys and bumble bees. And with Creamfields, the first dance festival of its kind in the region coming to the capital this weekend, it's the UAE's turn to experience the madness.
Its roots can be traced back to the early days of dance music, or rave, in the late 1980s, when a generation of young, disillusioned Britons started living for the weekend. There they found a succession of impromptu warehouse parties playing a new kind of fast-paced electronic dance music. With it came a distinctive look: boiler suits, white gloves, glow sticks and whistles. Fashionable it wasn't. But then conforming had never been the ravers' thing. And sneers from the establishment only served to heighten their anti-commercial stance.
The 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which gave the police the power to close down their parties, put things on temporary hold. Raves were driven inside clubs and licensed establishments - and the modern British club scene was born. Mike Fairburn, the marketing director at Flash, which is running Creamfields Abu Dhabi, started going to Cream in Liverpool, one of the country's first "superclubs", in the early 1990s. There he saw what had previously been a highly functional look take on a more commercial edge. "Things had moved on from boiler suits and baggy trousers and become a lot more dressy," he says. Towards the end of the 1990s, Cyberfreaks, dressed in protuberant lumps of rubber and UV paint, tutus and Dr Spock ears, filled the dance floors. Fairburn saw this hedonistic scene as a kind of escapism. "For me and my older brothers and his friends, going to Cream was about escaping the mundane side of life in the North of England."
Meanwhile, the festival scene was gathering pace, with events starting to take place across Europe, North America and Australia. There, people revelled in the freedom of a muddy field - a natural breeding ground for self-expression. "Since the dressy days, it's taken on a way more eclectic vibe," says Fairburn. "It's less about people wearing exactly the same things. All the big festivals have started this trend of people going to other festivals dressed up. You'll see people at Creamfields UK wearing all sorts of gear."
The psychology behind this world of make-believe is simpler than it looks. "I think the clothing thing is because you can wear what you want," says Fairburn. "Festivals are environments that encourage you to be free and open - and to enjoy yourself. Every club in the world has a dress code. You go to a festival and it's about come as you are - in whatever you want." For Andreas Constantinides, the product manager of A&R at Daxar Music, a UAE-based record company that distributes and produces dance music, it's about individuality. "People just want to go there and look different," he says. "At all the European festivals, everyone dresses up in really crazy clothes," he says. "It's the whole festival-carnival thing."
Dion Mavath, a Dubai-based DJ who has played all over the world, believes it is all part of the celebratory atmosphere. "People dress up to have a good time," he says. "They're adding an extra side to their creativity. It's the visual element of what's going on with the music." He concedes, however, that there may be an element of escapism to it. "They come to festivals to escape the reality of their lives and if they need to dress up to do that, I'm all for them."
It's not just festivalgoers who indulge in fancy dress, though: Mavath has been known to wear a white rabbit outfit when he played at an Alice in Wonderland party ("it was very, very warm - not well thought through"). And Deadmau5 (pronounced "Deadmouse"), the Canadian progressive house DJ, who will be playing at Creamfields Abu Dhabi, wears an imitation mouse's head when he is working. It has since become his trademark.
Since this is the first time a festival of this kind has taken place in the region, it will be interesting to see the extent to which young UAE residents adopt this look. Constantinides feels it is unlikely. "The crowds here are different," he says. "They're all used to dressing up nicely for clubs." He's had first-hand experience, since Daxar organised the Coma dance festival on Al Maya Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi last November, where they entertained around 2,000 people with DJs such as Wally Lopez and Sandy Rivero. "Some people," he says, "mainly Europeans and people who had been to festivals before, did get the concept, but there were a lot of other people dressed up as if they were going to a club. It's a mixture, but people from this region still want to look good when they go clubbing."
Fairburn agrees. "The scene here is very stylised and all about looking great," he says. "It's a Nikki Beach kind of vibe, where everyone looks good." There is room at Creamfields Abu Dhabi for eccentricity, though. "It would be great to see some people pop up here next week with some interesting headgear, or dressed up," he says. "It would be kind of fun." With events such as the Dubai Rugby Sevens seeing increasing numbers of people adopting an alter ego (several Austin Powers lookalikes were spotted this year), it may just be catching on, says John Lickrish, the managing director of Flash. "There are lots of dressing-up parties here, too. We live in quite a reserved culture and it gives people an opportunity to go crazy without going too crazy."
The format of the event, says Fairburn, should encourage an individualistic vibe. "With Creamfields and these kind of multiple-arena events, you've got loads of options, loads of choice. For me, it doesn't matter how many support acts you put on stage with The Killers or George Michael, you're not going to get that type of eclecticism and cross-appeal." Creamfields Abu Dhabi may not attract the same hordes of surreal characters (Mavath spent three days at Burning Man in the US with a human wheelbarrow) as some of the bigger festivals, but the big dance events often have a classier vibe than regular festivals, says Fairburn. "Dressy is still very much the thing for Creamfields," he says. "Particularly for girls."
Someone, in that case, forgot to tell Corey Oliver, founder of the Original Fitness Company, who runs beach boot camps in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He is planning on attending Creamfields Abu Dhabi dressed, along with a group of friends, in a morphsuit. For the uninitiated, that's a Lycra suit that covers the whole body, including the head. "There's a group of eight of us all in different colours," he says. Why, one wonders, would someone feel the need to wear something akin to a wetsuit? "It keeps people guessing," he says. "You go up to your friends and start talking to them and they don't even know who it is. We're doing it to make things more vibrant."
*Creamfields Abu Dhabi will take place at the Emirates Palace on Friday. For more information, and to buy tickets, go to www.creamfields.ae.