Friday, September 17, 2010

Burning Man: The Fashion

 + 1 week = 

Today I'll focus on the fashion of Burning Man, which is really just another discussion of the culture from a slightly different angle. Because in the end Burning Man is all about culture and community, and fashion is merely one aspect of how that community interacts and how its members express themselves. The weather and the dusty environment also play a large part in the discussion of Burning Man fashion, which you might have already guessed by looking at the photos above. And no, I did not wash those socks before I wore them again. There would have been no point.

In many ways, the fashion of Burning Man is deeply practical at its core. Want your friends to be able to find you easily in a place where cell phones don't work? Wear something outrageous and eye-catching. Want to stay cool under the scorching desert sun? Wear something scanty or simply go nude. Want to keep your feet from drying and cracking in the alkaline playa dust? Wear chunky, insulating boots. Want to avoid getting run down by a bike or a mutant vehicle in the pitch-black desert night? Wear plenty of things that glow. Want to stay warm at night and still look stylish? Try wearing something furry.

Tutus and Utilikilts; two Burning Man fashion staples.

But obviously in a place where there are no rules about how to dress, or even if you have to dress at all, there's a whole lot of leeway for personal expression. For many people, Burning Man is a place to push their own boundaries and even create a whole new persona that they've always wanted to explore. Many people find that going nude or partially so really isn't as scary as they imagined it would be, and in this they can find a new acceptance of their own bodies and a way to conquer fears. At Burning Man nudity is just a normal part of life, and whether you're old or young, skinny or ample, no one is really going to look twice if you're naked or topless or a "shirt cocker" (although the latter is really quite an unfortunate look, to be honest -- so much so that some camps have set up 'pants cannons' to fire at pantsless passersby). Many people shower right out in the open because setting up an enclosed shower structure can be such a pain, and when the water truck goes by to spray the roads (it keeps the dust down), people will just whip off their clothes and run behind it to cool off.

A couple of my daytime looks. Note the cup attached to my belt in the first photo; most places that serve drinks ask you to bring your own cup, so it's important to have one on hand at all times. This is one of the things that makes harnesses and belts such handy accessories; they give you a place to attach all your stuff.

There are a few common themes that emerge in the clothing of Burning Man; you'll see the "playa bunnies" done up with lots of fluffy fake fur, the rugged, Mad Max-meets Marilyn Manson looks, the ravers with their glow sticks and colorful wigs, and dashes of goth, steampunk, bondage-inspired, and plenty of hippie tie dye. You'll also see a lot of costumes and costume accessories -- bunny ears, weird contact lenses, masks, crazy wigs, and lots and lots of fishnet, in the form of stockings, gloves, shirts, you name it. Sadly, come Thursday night you'll also see a lot of the douchebag frat boy bro types rolling in, wearing their backwards baseball caps and shitty flip flops, with their sole purpose in life being to swill brewskies and listen to awful aggro metal music. This is my least favorite element of Burning Man, and frankly I wish the entrance gates would close on Wednesday so that people can't just come to 'party' for the weekend. Thankfully, the douchey bros and and vapid club girls make up a fairly small minority of the overall population.

A couple of interesting looks seen at Center Camp, the best spot for people watching on the whole playa.

Of course the weather has an influence on the fashion, being generally hot during the day and sometimes bitterly cold at night, but more importantly there's also the omnipresent dust. If you're worried about being dirty at Burning Man, you're going to be spending a lot of your time worrying. OK, all of your time. Because there's really no getting clean at Burning Man, there's only the temporary illusion of clean that you get when you rinse off your hands or wipe your face with a wet washcloth (which will inevitably be inpregnated with dust anyway). If you really want to enjoy yourself fully, you just have to embrace the dust, because by the end of the week everyone and everything is pretty much covered with it.

By the end of the week my "playa hair" had gone full-on spiky mop, and our boots were all playa-colored. I also discovered why dreadlocks are such a practical hair style out there.

As I mentioned on Monday, the only time I've really felt out of place at Burning Man was when I showed up in my boring, unimaginative street clothes (literally jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers, that I wore because they were comfortable to travel in). In a place where anything goes, it's not about fitting in so much as it's about putting yourself out there and contributing something to the community. And whether you go in drag or dress up as a one-eyed purple kangaroo or just go naked, you're revealing something about yourself, something that can be shared. And with an outfit that you clearly put zero effort or thought into, there's nothing there to be shared, nothing to contribute to the experience of Burning Man. Because in the end, the Burning Man experience is comprised solely of what the attendees collectively put into it.

Dressing up at Burning Man is fun, but for me it isn't really the focus, because I already feel very confident in expressing myself through style even when I'm back home. But for many people it's the fashion element that is so transformative; they cast off their inhibitions and experiment with style in ways they never thought they could. And I think this leads a lot of people to wonder what they're so scared of in regular life, and how they might bring a little of that freedom back home with them. Like I said before, Burning Man can be a life-changing experience, and this is just one of the many aspects of your life it can change.

I hope you've enjoyed my series on Burning Man; for Parts 1 and 2, please see my posts from Monday and Wednesday.


Diana said...

Thanks so much for writing this post! I come from a sociology background, so I find things like this really fascinating. I love seeing how people behave (and dress) when they're in environments that allow them to be free of inhibitions and conventional social norms.

Meghan Edge said...

I miss this type of thing. So much! I love this post.

LPC said...

Fascinating. Loved the woman in the purple outfit. Love the whole idea too.

ReaderRita said...

I'm used to seeing you in more colorful threads; but you had great style the whole week, regardless! How many hats did you bring? They are all super cool-
Also, I hate to be the one to ask this, but I was raised in a big city, so I have to. Do you worry about leaving your stuff behind in your tent with the zillions of people wandering about? My experiences with drunk frat boy types (the weekend guests) have been that they seem to drink and then think it would be funny to help themselves to whatever they find amusing. (I would hope that in this instance they behave differently.)
But really- problem, or not? Am I being too suspicious and gnarly city gal-ish?
Thanks again for your posts on this- they're grand!

Avenueswithoutlimit said...

wow that seems like great fun, Thank you so much for sharing your pics and outfits..
unfortunately I was told there's a lot of people working around with snakes. Since my biggest phobia is snake, This will never happen for me..

Anonymous said...

I have a random question for ya, Audi (or any Burning Man attendees)--I love the whole concept and idea of Burning Man, practically everything about it, but one thing gives me pause---I learned in college that just the *smell* of pot gives me a headache. Would I just die at Burning Man?? I hate to let something like that stop me from going but I also don't think I'd be able to enjoy it as much if I was in pain the whole time...

Thanks in advance for your perspective(s)!!

Kantiki Jayamana Whateva said...

@Anonymous - I smell it at least once a week while at Burning Man, but because of the federal presence the main Esplanade is usually free of it. I usually run across it at one of the clubs during the week. My reaction isn't as severe, but it's bad, so I feel you. If you were going out for a night of dancing, I'd suggest just taking a headache reliever ahead of time just in case. Don't let it ruin your night if it happens.

@Audi - Awesome post! A good outfit is its own gift to the playa. It's you-as-art. You really captured this while highlighting the fashion culture of our desert. I find that multiyear burners begin bringing the fashion more and more into the default world... and that is a thing of beauty.

I would add only one thing. Many of the lovely ladies I share dust with have taken to pinning up their hair right before hitting the playa, then wear one wig after another thru the week. Most are neon, but a lot of others are more earth-toned or as exotic as fake dreads. There's no way though that it keeps ALL the dust out. That is truly an impossibility.

C said...

Audi, I have just loved reading these posts. This one is particularly awesome. I have started needling Joe about going to Burning Man someday. But don't worry, we won't be weekend douchebaggers.

Also, I seriously, SERIOUSLY want a pants cannon.

Nicky said...

Thank you so much for all 3 posts and all the great photos. I have wondered for a while what Burning Man is all about and you have given a vivid portrait. It is so much cooler than I imagined but then I know now that I really couldn't have imagined it at all!

Esz said...

These have been great posts! I've always wondered about Burning Man and yours have been probably the most informative posts I've seen around the parts.

Northmoon said...

Great posts! Thank you for sharing a little of the Burning Man experience.

phyllis said...

I need to make sure my 13 year old twin daughters see these posts. LOVE the art! Phyllis

WendyB said...

Nice abs!

virago said...

Another SF blogger, Drunken Housewife, took one of her kids to Burning Man, and she did a very funny post comparing and contrasting Burning Man back in the day (the Housewife was there when it had just moved to the desert) and nowadays.

She said a few people had gently chided her about taking her kid to Burning Man, fearing that "Iris was 'exposed to so much nudity and casual drug use,' when the reality is that Iris sees more nudity and casual drug use walking around San Francisco.

"At home we often smell marijuana as we run errands or play in the park, and it's quite fashionable to walk around the Castro nude these days, no matter what the weather. Out at Burning Man, people tended to wear at least underwear, fearing the rage of the sun and also wanting to make more of a fashion statement than skin can pull off alone."

Here 's the whole thing if you want to take a look:

Lots of interesting background -- or at least it was interesting to this introverted and sun-shunning Easterner, who tries to avoid crowds but is fascinated by the idea of spending time with such a wildly diverse group of people.

Alison at Wardrobe Oxygen said...

I have been a blog reading slacker and just read your three Burning Man posts. So well written, fabulous photos, and you did a phenomenal job of explaining the atmosphere. I have never been, but have many friends who have and they try to tell me the same as you wrote, but you were far more eloquent and created better pictures in my mind. Thank you so much for the time you put forth on these!!

Beth Morey said...

Love! But why is everyone always scantily clad (it seems) at Burning Man and similar events?

My fav outfit is the top right photo. The flared wrists are great!

Fawn said...

The guy in the last photo? I run into him every time I go to an event to take pictures. EVERY TIME.

Your playa hair looks deliberate and awesome!

Sheila said...

I really enjoyed this post, Audi (and all of your Burning Man posts), thank you. I'll never make to Burning Man, but seeing little bits makes me understand it much better.

You had some awesome outfits. And can you believe, I just noticed that you have your upper lip pierced.

Jesse Vanderwerf said...

I love the opening shots. Your design then the same design plus one week on the playa. Super dusty and great addition of horizontal lines!!

By the way a close friend of mine has some great design ideas and would love your feedback. Please check out her stuff at:

thanks for the tips and keep them coming. Go Burn!!

Cel said...

I can't believe I hadn't read these Burning Man posts before. I'd always been interested in attending but now I'm SOLD. I have GOT to attend this event someday! Thank you so much for taking the time to share all this with us!

Unknown said...

Hi, Nice article! I actually have a website with burning man clothing that I have designed myself. I have been going to burning man for 8 years and the event has influenced me to create this kind of clothing to make it more fun for everyone!

Check out my site:

Lisa S said...

Hey, I love your green zip up jumper, the one with the cup attached. Did you buy it or make it? Where did you buy it? I so want it! I'm going to burning man this year for my first time.