Why People Dress Funny at Burning Man

By Dr. Lizard

Of course by now you’ve heard some old-timer whining about how Burning Man was better in the early days. Well, it’s true in some ways, but really, Burning Man has changed every year so i prefer to just say it was different. There’s still nothing like it anywhere else.

There’s a long-running argument over whether “dressing up” in a costume is “participating” at Burning Man. I have heard some of my old-timer friends complain about being heckled and called “spectators” for walking around in khakis. Never mind they had built a three-story art project…. never mind they had been wearing khaki to the Burn since it came to the desert… never mind that some people wear costumes but really don’t participate or contribute much beyond that…. it has been argued from many perspectives, but to set the record straight, i felt i ought to tell this story. From the historical perspective. Because in the “early days” we didn’t wear costumes at Burning Man.

When Burning Man first came to the desert, it was extreme survival camping. Here we were, just a couple hundred of us, smack in the middle of some godforsaken nowhere. The alkali plain seemed to stretch to infinity. Our cars and tents were huddled close to each other, like a wagon train circled against the wilderness. Many of us brought freeze-dried food and camping gear. The Black Rock Rangers had guns….big guns. They patrolled the desert around our camp, keeping an eye out for those who might have wandered too far, into the very real dangers of the Black Rock Desert.

The Black Rock Rangers, led by the intrepid Danger Ranger, were dressed in paramilitary “Lawrence of Arabia” style, with camos and headgear. Some had flowing robes. Most of the rest of us wore….khaki. Camping clothes. Shorts, fleeces. But everybody had been told to bring formal clothes for the black-tie cocktail party immediately preceding the Burn. There was something innately curious about being there, in that environment, with formal wear, sipping martinis and watching the sunset in the glow of generator-powered neon from the Man. It was so ridiculously heinous, so bizarre and hilarious, that nobody even laughed about it. It was so wrong, it felt right.

Sure i had some batik cotton pants from Bali that i couldn’t really wear anywhere except the Burn…or maybe the Health and Harmony Festival. There was the occasional guy in a sarong, or a woman with a parasol. Other people took advantage of the opportunity to wear something outrageous, or nothing at all, since we had created a community where people felt comfortable nude. The authorities weren’t really aware of us yet. There were a few guys in dresses, and of course there was the Java Cow, but that was for a ritual performance…. and i’m digressing again.

Returning to the desert, it seemed everyone had picked up on that heinous juxtaposition of creature comfort in the desert. Kitchens grew elaborate. Freeze-dried became a thing of the past. No, we had to have chicken breast sauteed in a white wine – caper sauce, and champagne served – of course – in the good crystal brought from home. Disposable plates? No way. We had good china, and proper silver. Tuxedos and evening gowns for the cocktail party.

Then came 1993. I will never forget the sunset before the Burn. We had our first radio station that year, and the entire camp was arranged around a circle – a deliberate circling of the wagons. For me, that was the year it all came together. That one circle was our first street, and the prototype for what is now Center Camp. Remember, the entire encampment was smaller than today’s Center Camp. We held the formal cocktail party in the center of the circle — there was no cafe. (An aside: i remember a panel van serving coffee, for a reasonable fee, from my earliest Burns. I don’t know who ran it, but it was incredibly good coffee. This was the only vending going on besides ice. When it was decided not to allow vending, the coffee-drinkers rose up to remind everyone that there’s nothing like getting up to find the coffee already made – and so the cafe was sort of grandfathered in as an exception.) It was also the year of the first theme camp – Christmas Camp, with their fake snow and decorated Christmas trees, and their naughty, scrawny Santa (Peter? Whatever has become of you?) and their OBNOXIOUS high-volume caroling.

Anyway, cocktail party time. 1993. Sunset. Center circle. The clouds took on a brilliant magenta hue with orange highlights. The Man was lit, blue, to the East of us, standing taller than the mountains. We were all decked out, in our heinously formal jackets and gowns. I was watching the beautiful Calico Mountains to the west, with their streaks of white, orange and red soil. The sky cast a magical glow over the proceedings. And then….then they arrived. From one side of the circle, arm-in-arm, a troupe of fully decked-out and frocked-up drag queens from San Francisco came sauntering up to the party. All eyes were on them. They had pulled out all the stops. Velvet corsets, fishnets, enough make-up to embarrass Mary Kay herself. Boots, heels…stilettos. Vermilion, burgundy; skirts, lace, garters. In the glow of the sun-streaked sky their outfits were positively stunning. The conversation ceased, and something — something just *clicked*. It all fit so perfectly together. This purely gratuitous display of ostentation became the modus operandi of the entire community.

The circle opened, and the Queens (Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence perhaps, or an offshoot? I’m not sure) were handed cocktails and mixed in with the rest of us. It was at that moment, i think, with those totally camped-out, over-the-top queens grinning at us, that everyone realized that the Burning Man Experience we had created was a *forum*. Not a festival, not a party, not a show….a forum, where you could say or do or build or *be* anything you ever wanted to say or do or build or be (as long as it didn’t hurt anybody) and it would be ok. Not just ok…someone would be bound to come up to you and say “That is the most awesome thing i have ever seen, thank you so much for doing that.”

The next year, most of us came back with costumes.

(Christmas Camp by Peter Doty, Lisa Archer and Amanda Marshal, photo by Gerry Gropp)

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.