Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.
It’s Tutu Tuesday, and you know what that looks like: An inordinate number of participants gleefully donning elasticized circlets of tulle and trim, just because it’s that day. The most ebullient, of course, are the unlikely ones, those who have never had the formative experience of ballet recitals, or tightrope walking, or playing gender-normative dress up, for whom a tutu is akin to revelation. Somehow the playfulness, the absurdity, the literally sheer lack of utility of a tutu is the perfect Burner ritual. It’s self-expressive, it’s communal, and it’s fricking fun to look like the dancing hippos in Fantasia.
Putting on a tutu is a transformative way to change your identity by changing your look, like a priestly chasuble, or patterned tribal daubing. It joins you to a cohort and signals your role. Curiously, because it is also a socially sanctioned activity, it is far less scary than wearing the same thing on the street back home (unless you are a prima ballerina or San Franciscan). Nobody here is going to look askance at you in a tutu; there are many thousands more sharing your sartorial selection today. And how are you going to feel about them? About yourself? Hopefully fabulous. And an integral part of a shared ceremonial observation of a beloved tradition in our little corner of dry lakebed.
Presenting an enhanced self through costuming and adorning is one of the most delicious rituals of Black Rock City. Many spend the weeks leading up to the playa engaging in a ritual of physical transformation, slowly applying henna, dying or extending or braiding hair. Our campmate Luzita annually changes her hairdo to match the art theme; her flaming red bangs and vibrant blue buzz cut with a star shaved in the back for American Dream is still legendary in our circle. For some, the ceremony of self-presentation occupies the mind all year long. They plan, they sew, they source, they shred. They haunt garage sales, thrift shops, clothing swaps, even dumpster dives for the tantalizing possibility of finding the perfect piece to wear to a sunrise set at Mayan Warrior or for a final flourish on Burn Night. Some find ritual in reopening that dusty bin stored in the nether reaches of their garage. This is the casket into which they dip and dress year after year, combining and recombining as theme and girth and spirit moves. Even opening the bin becomes an annual rite, the cracked seal releasing a familiar cloud of gypsum enveloping folds of fluorescence and fiber. Shake, sneeze, sigh. Here we go again.
One person’s ritual is another’s revolt. Tuesdays are the only days I refuse to wear a tutu in BRC, because I don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing. I spend my week trying to push and corset my own boundaries of beauty and propriety in an exorcism of body shaming and an emphasis of femininity. But I cannot claim that I achieve consistent originality. There’s a reason people who live in deserts dress in similar ways. Dashiki, meet tunic, meet salwar kameez; wearing them binds me to similarly-dressed sisters I have never met in desert, desolate venues in other hemispheres.
I always wear the same thing for Exodus; that’s my most rigid ritual of the whole week. My talisman to cross over to Reality Camp is a black tank top silkscreened with the words, “GONE FERAL,” a gift from Big Words artist Laura Kimpton. For eight successive years, that shirt has seen many a Highway 80 gas station, the counter of the Peppermill Casino Coffee Shop, and the cab of at least three tow trucks. As my armored breastplate of leave-taking, it offers a special balm for when it is unequivocally time to go. In wearing it for each ending, I am comforting myself that I can wear it for the next Exodus, and the next.
Ask your fellow Burners about their clothing rituals and prepare to be amused and amazed. Hruby packs her pieces in clearly marked zipper plastic bags labeled for her own amusement: Sari not Sari, London/France Panties, Suburban Turbans. Maria spends most of her time in khaki as a Black Rock Ranger but makes sure to add in what she calls “the essentials:” a jacket with lights, a few pairs of animal ears, and onesies. Ralph builds a spreadsheet to ensure he doesn’t miss any components of his elaborate ensembles, “with a separate tab for makeup.” Gary wears Thai fishing pants, which he sources online. He buys extras, spray paints them with handmade Burning Man stencils, and gives them as gifts to his costume-challenged campmates. Loren and Rachel only wear items they have made themselves. Glenda always carries a parasol, fan, and rosewater spray. To honor Burner friends who have passed away, Cooky makes a point of ritualistically wearing or carrying items departed ones have given her or that she remembers wearing in their company.
Sometimes it’s a shared aesthetic that becomes a tradition. If you pass through the Gate on opening night, you are likely to be greeted by volunteers wearing their fancy version of black-and-skulls gear enhanced with truly scary clown makeup. On the Friday before the Burn, Jenneviere and Xander will be tending the Black Hole bar in matching Superman capes and boyshorts. If it’s Friday, it must be bloody marys with Underoos. On Thursday afternoon, $tephen will be leading floppy-eared lagomorphs in the Billion Bunny March, a veritable hutch of rabbitable inclusion; our ritual is making sure we stop by to see his ever-more-creative iteration. Many camps use dress as a signifying identity — if you see a group in a cacophonous clash of pink-and-orange, it must be the Disorient denizens in their signature “pornj.” The Pink Heart folks are clearly recognizable too, as are the Thunderdome crew — and it’s not hard to guess what each group will be wearing.
Jori is curious about repeating her annual packing process. “Does ‘pile three times more outfits than I could possibly wear into the teensy camper closet and not be able to find anything when I want to wear it’ count as a ritual?” We have it on good authority that this ritual is widely practiced… and this week, it is definitely underway.
Top photo: Mirror Man (Photo by Galen Oakes)