I first attended Burning Man in 1995, when the population was relatively small, at 4000 attendees. Costumes were shown off in the Sunday fashion show, which is a tradition that continues to this day. In the early years of the event, virtually all the costumes were handmade and quite original – these were the days before fairy wings and fake fur.
Hence the costumes were quirky and sometimes included performance, like Kimric Smythe’s Java Cow. (image 1) On Sunday morning at dawn, a chariot driven by a cow-skull headed human drove up to the man and black coffee was offered to those up and about that early. In 1996, the year of Helco, devil outfits and all their variations were popular. The annual theme often inspires fantastic costumes; the Fertility theme of 1997 produced Gaia and her court of fruits and vegetables. (image 2)
As the event has grown, handmade costumes have been outnumbered by store-bought fashions, which have now coalesced into several distinct looks including fake fur bikinis, leggings and cat-eared hats; floor length fake fur evening coats, and Steampunk-inspired leather outfits with vests, leggings, corsets, gauntlets, goggles and top hats. (image 3) On the extremely mundane side, we see the shirtcockers – men wearing only a t-shirt, and the guys in Dr. Seuss hats, jeans and t-shirts. Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to find an event with more fabulous, original and diverse costumes. The “burner” look has spawned a cottage industry of costumers who create these looks and sell them at trunk and special pre-event sales. There is some criticism of this trend as its seems to go against Burning Man’s D.I.Y. aesthetic – why not create one’s own costume? But, in all fairness, not everyone has the time, skills or inclination to do so, and wearing these off-the-rack costumes might be a radical step for some. In addition, the makers of playa costumes and clothing are able to make or supplement their living via community support.
Still, you’ll see hundreds of amazing handmade outfits at the event; as the technology has evolved, so has its incorporation into fantastic programmed EL-wire costumes, which contain moving images like birds flying, figures dancing, and repetitive patterns. (image 4) Group costumes are popular, like the herd of giraffes from South Africa, and the Salvador Dali painting that formed when a group of men stood together, sections of the painting displayed on the backs of their tuxedos. (image 5-see above) Stilt-walking is popular at the event, and has inspired wonderfully whimsical elongated costumes. (image 6)
The fire performers have a particular look, dark and apocalyptic. Standard materials that are prolific at the event, including zip-ties, caution tape, plastic spoons and forks, and duct tape get incorporated into costumes in extremely clever ways. Political views are expressed, individuals made fun of, and social trends played with in costumes. I can’t think of a better place to debut a costume than at Burning Man, where you’re guaranteed an appreciative audience of thousands – currently upwards of 50,000 – who will likely want to know more about you – and your outfit.