The Burning Man Series: Nevada’s Desert Dress


I’m pleased to present the first in a new series for the month of August, that will focus on the Burning Man festival (which begins August 29). Each Friday, a different guest writer will present their  point of view on this annual festival in the desert.

Jan Loverin, Curator of Clothing & Textiles, Nevada State Museum's, Marjorie Russell Clothing and Textile Research Center

First, I’m happy to present Jan Loverin, Curator of Clothing and Textiles Nevada State Museum’s Marjorie Russell Clothing and Textile Research Center who happily provides some context for the festival, for those who are unfamiliar. Loverin has a B.A. in Biology from Whittier College and a M.S. in Home Economics from the University of Nevada-Reno. She has worked (part time) at the Museum since 1985. She has written numerous articles and presented papers nationally and internationally. She is also a long-time member of the Costume Society of America.

Nevada once again becomes a mecca for art and community with the 25th year of the Burning Man Festival. For the past 21 years this event has been held on the Black Rock desert, north of Reno and  has become one of the largest social gatherings in the northern hemisphere.

Nevada has historically been recognized as the home to massive gold and silver mining, legalized gaming, prostitution and world class entertainment. Now we are known for the spectacular, awe inspiring, Burning Man Festival and the community of Black Rock City.  This temporary community of over 40,000 people inhabits the playa for seven days, creating a unique society based on a gifting economy, radical self expression and  self reliance.  This phenomenon has dramatically changed the look of our state.

Northern Nevada, particularly Reno, becomes a haven for the thousands of visitors who pass through on their way to the Black Rock Desert,  seven miles past the small town of Gerlach.  When the event begins we watch as the highways become crowded with fully packed and loaded vehicles heading toward this desert community and when it is over, we again watch the exodus of very dirty and dusty vehicles as people leave and go back to their daily lives.

Photo by Geoffrey Nelson (Via Dusty Couture)

While there have been many articles written about the concept of Burning Man, I am here to tell you that it is wonderful, freeing, transformative, dirty, fun, entertaining, richly rewarding and a place to shed your current persona and adorn yourself HOWEVER YOU WANT…… as long as it’s not current normative dress.

That’s right, costumes are an essential part of being a “Burner.”  While theoretically, it is a place for total freedom of expression, it is not without some elements of conformity.  Feathers are in(See note 1 below), boots are in; wings, stilts, crinolines, and ballet tutus are in; nudity and body paint are in; utili kilts are popular, as is wearing underwear as outerwear.  Headgear and various forms of artistically created hairstyles (usually created to reduce the effects of wind and dirt) are essential and costuming for night is illuminated with elaborately constructed ensembles of el wire, glow sticks, fiber optic fabric, and accessories of fire.

Burning Man has once again put Nevada on the worldwide map.  Burners are a part of our culture…with pre and post decompression events throughout the year,  and exhibitions of art at local museums, and it has created a sizeable impact on our economy.  Burners are as much a part of Nevada as showgirls, strippers, and Las Vegas night life. Burning Man has also has created a profound effect on us Nevadans.  For a state that has been known for its conservatism, it has opened our eyes.  Yes, you can create a society and tear it down 7 days later, leaving no trace. Yes, you can create a community of bartering(see note 2 below) and exchange and have it work.  Yes, you can create magnificent art and have the sky as a backdrop. Yes, you can dress up and put on a new and different outfit to become new and different person. Yes, Burning Man works for Nevada.

As the curator of clothing and textiles at the Nevada State Museum, I am fascinated by the creative genius of Burning Man and in my opinion, this festival has embraced the natural beauty of Nevada’s desert landscape as a place of freedom, survival and community.

Thanks so much to Jan for giving us this brief introduction to the festival (and the Burning Ban Series). Tune in next Friday for another installment with a different point of view.


Clarke, Rachel. “Radical Conformity: Fashion Trends at Burning Man.” Popular Culture Association National Conference, San Francisco, CA, 2008.

Nelson, Geoffrey. A Tribe of Artists: Costumes and Culture at Burning Man. Exhibit Catalog Nevada Museum of Art, 2007.

*Image via LibreInk Blog Photo by Frederic Larson of the San Francisco Chronicle.

1. $teven Ra$pa. Arts Advocate & Special Events Producer for Burning Man wrote me this afternoon to make sure people understand that “Feathers–especially feather boas– are not “in” on the playa. They are on our list of things NOT to bring to Burning Man because they create MOOP (matter out of place) as they shed. In fact, feather boas can be confiscated by our Gate crew to avoid littering the playa with possible loose feathers, so it isn’t good to encourage people to show up with feathers.”

2. $teven Ra$pa. Arts Advocate & Special Events Producer for Burning Man also wants to make sure everyone understands clearly the culture of giving at Burning man: “Jan mentions “bartering” and the emphasis of Burner culture is gifting–giving something without the expectation of return. It is that spirit of giving that permeates everything at Burning Man: from self expression to the generosity of theme camps to the massive works of art.”

Thanks so much to $teven for pointing these subtleties out!

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Mary Tuma: Fabric, The Body and Mariano Fortuny


Jennifer Heath, a UC Press author (The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics and Land of the Unconquerable) recently turned my attention to contemporary artist Mary Tuma. Having only seen a photograph of her ‘tall fashions,’ and knowing that her work stemmed from in interest in liberating women, I became intrigued and wanted to know more.

A native of Oakland, CA she earned a BS in Costume and Textile Design from University of California – Davis.

Her artists statement notes:

internal systems III, 2008. poly-satin ribbon, yarns and string. variable. By Mary Tuma.

“My work addresses the issues of the transformation of the body and the spirit through the use of clothing forms applied to found objects or placed within a contextual environment. The use of old fabrics and found objects is important in creating a work or environment that evokes a feeling of loss, or distant memory.”

Not surprisingly, given her interest in crochet and sewing, her work reminds me of Ruth Asawa’s basket-like sculpture. Heath filled me in a little bit more on her recent work, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice: “[It’s] huge. . .  but based on the fashions of Marino Fortuny, the kind of Greek revival dresses that helped liberate women from corsets. To Mary, these are meaningful in terms of  the Arab Spring (she is half Palestinian). The Three Pillars just went to a show in Kuwait. . . .  Mary teaches fibre arts and fashion at UNCC.” Mariano Fortuny’s designs (worn by the likes of Lillian Gish and Isadora Duncan) and their influence on Tuma’s work seemed a unique connection. Happily I had a chance to ask Tuma about her work directly:

Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (Kuwait) By Mary Tuma (Photo Via Jennifer Heath)

Fashion Historia: What is the significance of fashion history in your current piece, Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice?

Mary Tuma: “Fashion is a human rights issue. One can see this clearly in the current debate over the right or requirement of women of Islamic faith to wear head scarves. Mariano Fortuny’s work has always stood out in my mind as a great example of the fashionable un-corseted natural body of woman— a celebration of unaltered human form. For me, his work speaks volumes about woman’s right to exist in her natural form apart from cultural shackles. Of course Fortuny’s Delphos dresses (on which I based formal aspects of my piece Three Pillars) were inspired by ancient Greek statuary, which serves as a reference to a culture involved in early experiments in democracy. So, for that reason, the Fortuny model seemed very appropriate for a piece about the current “Arab Spring,” which is what Three Pillars addresses. For me, democracy is also a feminist issue, and is meaningless if it’s not. As the Arab World changes, it is my hope that women will step up and take an increasingly integral role in forming new governments and creating policy. So Three Pillars: Liberty, Unity, Voice (which also spells LUV by the way!) is my way of hoping to inspire feminism in the face of changes and to inspire women to stay in the dialogue.”

Fashion Historia: How did your education at UC Davis help prepare you for your work as an artist ?

Mary Tuma: “My education at UCD Design prepared me in many ways to function as an artist working in fiber materials and methods. Apart from learning to work with dyes, garment forms, etc., I took some very important classes that directed my thinking. History of Costume (with JoAnn Stabb) was one of these and it was where I first learned about Fortuny and his amazing work.

Homes for the disembodiednext piece, 2000, remade 2003. 50 meters of continuous fabric, fallen trees, thread, stones, wire. approximately 10' x 25' x 7' (dimensions variable)

I have been fascinated since then with the mystery of the permanently pleated silk. Three Pillars was my first experiment in playing with permanently pleating silk after a student brought me an article from the web on how to “fake” it! The other two very influential classes were Textiles of the World 1 & 2…. These three courses have influenced my direction with my work in a sort of constant way. I did go on after earning my BS in Textile and Costume Design from UCD to study Women’s Fashion area at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and Costume Design for Theater at Humboldt State University. Of course all of these experiences contributed to my knowledge base and have given me a unique perspective from which to work. My MFA is in Fine Art from the University of Arizona, where I studied Fibers with Gayle Wimmer. It was at the University of Arizona where I began to feel the difference between Art, Craft and Design and where I was able to negotiate between these areas to develop my practice.”

I’m thrilled to be able to share this unique use of fashion history in contemporary art. I think Mary Tuma’s work a new iteration of the 1980s ‘art to wear’ movement (which holds strong ties to California). I’d love to have your thoughts and comments on her work.

Additional Resources:

For more on Classicism in fashion see the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s online exhibition Goddess (2003).

For more on Mary Tuma, please see the Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding.

*Image above is of a Mariano Fortuny Delphose dress (1930) via the MET, CI (2009.300.2606, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the estate of Mary Boocock Leavitt, 1974)


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Climate change and silk batiks in North Carolina

Moulin, batik on silk, 54″ x 36″ By Mary Edna Fraser

One sometimes finds art and fashion in strange places. A few days ago, I discovered this unique collaboration between a scientist and a silk batik artist. It plays into my personal interest in both hand-crafted objects and the environment. The exhibit opens tomorrow with a special reception, remarks by the artists and a book signing:

“Our Expanding Oceans: The Blending of Art and Science”

Thursday, June 23, 6 pm – 9:30 pm

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

This unique exhibit features more than 50 hand-dyed silk batiks, each inspired by aerial and satellite imagery as well as conceptual perspectives of our environment, and permeated with color to produce stunning visual effects. Developed as a comprehensive exhibit by artist Mary Edna Fraser and scientist Orrin Pilkey,* the collection explores major elements of global climate change, from melting ice sheets to rising seas.

More information on this unique collaboration between science and art can be found at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

For more of Mary Edna Fraser's Expanding Oceans series, click this image.

*Full Disclosure: Please note that Orrin Pilkey is the author of The World’s Beaches from UC Press, my employer.

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Curator Interview: Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now

Newly open at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco is Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now ( from June 17-October 23, 2011) featuring 65 re-interpretations of the the traditional Korean textile Bojagi (Bo-Jah-ki), or ‘wrapping cloths’ by both Korean and international artists. It’s similarity to the western craft of quilting and patchwork, I was immediately drawn to the idea of this exhibition. According to the museum’s press materials:

In-yul Heo Embroidery Bojagi (Replica), 2010 Hand-embroidered silk (Via Museum of Craft and Folk Art)

“Traditional Bojagi was made from leftover pieces of cloths or papers, which were elaborately embroidered together and was a primarily non- professional activity, engaged in by women in a folk art tradition. Function determined the form and the result often created beautiful abstract patterns. Bojagi were made to protect and to decorate items and gifts wrapped inside them as alternatives to boxes and chests. Bojagi stored precious objects, clothing, bedding and covered food in the home. Although this folkloric custom continues in the country, today, the craft of Bojagi has had a great influence on contemporary artists from Korea and around the world. Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now brings together contemporary artists from Korea, and ten other countries that are inspired by this Korean folk art.”

Guest curator Chunghie Lee, adjunct faculty in the textile department at the Rhode Island School of Design, graciously agreed to answer a few questions I had for her about the exhibit:

Fashion Historia: Do you have a favorite piece in the show?

Chunghie Lee: “There are three that stand out to me the most. One conventional piece exemplifies what bogaji is and the other two because of the artist’s vision to push the meaning of bogaji and interpreted it in a whole different light. Interestingly, all three artists have completely, different backgrounds – one textile, one architecture, and the other a painter. Being Korean, and having a textile background Sora Lee’s ‘Harmony 2010’ work encompasses the traditional Samsol technique with all hand stitching, bring the calmness and serendipity atmosphere in life – 79” by 79” off-white work (raw silk). The work silently speaks of the patience and endurance that the no-name women might have lived in the past.

Kuzina Cheng "Over the River" (Image provided by Chunghie Lee)

The second piece is done by a recent RISD student of mine, Kuzina Cheng. Having just completed her sophomore year at RISD, she pushed and challenged herself, making a 60 inch by 12 feet piece with pocketed flaps. The pockets fluttered when they were filled with wind and her piece stretched across to “wrap” the canal in Providence. The canal was where she found peace in her hectic school year, to her it was her precious place. She challenged to wrap something, which essentially cannot be wrapped or kept – water and wind. Upon first glance, one may not recognize the piece as bojagi inspired, but she has stayed true to the meaning behind bojagi in an innovative way. I was impressed by her thought process and that at such a young age, she had accomplished something so big.

The third artist focused in more on the unique characteristics of bojagi. She was very interested in the use of transparent fabrics and the use of light. Catherine O’Leary transformed bojagi into something functional and fashionable. Having a painting background, she works intuitively and picked up on the bojagi characteristics immediately. Her pieces are light and look mysteriously dimensional, as if able to float away if you didn’t grasp onto it tightly. These dresses are unlike anything ordinary, they move with the body and have voluminous bottom making one feel like they are in a fairytale. She is a natural talent, does as she goes, and because of that none of her pieces are the same and all one of a kind.”

Catherine O'Leary, "Wearable" (Image Via Chunghie Lee)

Fashion Historia: Is Bojagi something you have a close personal connection with? Was it something you grew up around?

Chunghie Lee: “Contrary to what one might think, I did not grow up around bojagi. Even having been a fiber artist for most of my life (my undergraduate B.F.A. was furniture design and much later year M.F.A. on fiber-weaving and dyeing), I was oblivious to this cultural tradition. I was first exposed to it by my mother-in-law when she handed me down her precious clothes. At such a young age of 20, I didn’t realize the importance of it. It wasn’t until I was invited to come to the US as part of the Korea Metal and Fiber Artist exhibition in 1991. The tour lasted for 3 years and went across the US and parts of Canada. During the tour, I was unexpectedly asked to give a presentation about something Korean related. I quickly did some homework and looked into bojagi. As I researched into this deep rooted Korean tradition, I learned about the nameless woman and the male dominated society that Korea use to be. I had heard stories about it before, but never paid much attention. After the presentation, I have been working closely with bojagi. In 1999, I was lucky enough to be presented with another amazing opportunity, RISD had asked to me teach at their school. Speaking about it was one thing, but teaching it uncovered my passion for this Korean cultural tradition. Soon enough, without realization, I found myself in the middle of it all – I was spreading awareness about bojagi not only in the US but all over the world including from Canada to Europe and of course, Asia. It took me by surprise when I came across an article of myself being described as the bojagi ambassador. I think that was when it all hit me. Since then, I have been invited to shows and have held my own exhibitions. One of my major curated shows was held in France, in conjunction with the European Patchwork Meeting in Alsace, France, where I showcased works of bojagi, joomchi (Korean traditional textured paper) and quilt. To my surprise, people from nearly 50 countries attended the show. I still have two more one person show in this year, one in London and the other in Utania in the UK. Bojagi keeps bringing me unexpected surprises and countless opportunities, I cannot imagine my life without it now.”

Thanks so much to Chunghie Lee and the Museum of Craft and Folk Art for their help with this post. I’d love to hear from those who attend the show (open through October 23, 2011), for reactions and commentary. Below, are a selection of the 65 pieces included in the exhibit (Click one for a slideshow):

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Teaser Tuesday: Craft in America

Premiering tonight on PBS at 8pm is Craft in America, and from the trailer it looks like it will offer some inspiring stories on handcrafted objects and their role in culture. The companion book is available for sale : Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects

Watch the full episode. See more Craft in America.



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Yarn Bombs, Knitting and Gender


A friend recently drew my attention to the 80 feet of new yarn in downtown Berkeley – suggesting that I was the culprit. I was not, but ever since reading The Culture of Knitting by Joanne Turney I’ve become fascinated with this particular iteration of street art / graffiti. Bansky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was the first time I thought remotely about graffiti as art, but it wasn’t until I watched the trailer below that I began to think of yarn or knit bombs as a gendered pursuit – though I have to wonder about showing images of mothers ‘yarn-bombing’ with children in tow. This potential film brings up a number of questions for me: Does it have the same level of danger associated with it? Are there substantial legal troubles? Do businesses like it better than ‘traditional graffiti’ (now there’s an odd turn of phrase)? Do people consider it art, or merely decorative ?

I do hope that Sarah Gonzalez gets to make and release her documentary, I’d be curious to see the artists profiled and find out of they have the same legal troubles that standard graffiti artists face. In the Bay Area at least, it seems that knitted street art has more staying power and less of a stigma. It seems somehow more egalitarian, and that anyone (or any knitter) could participate. Does that also mean that the artists are less respected? How do male graffiti artists perceive this format – and will it eventually loose its cache once a museum does an exhibition of yarn bombs? I’m curious to see where this goes…

*Image via Berkeleyside

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