Dress to Impress, Bless, and Process: Clothing as Ritual in Black Rock City

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.

TuTu Tuesday (Photo by Zipporah Lomax)

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.

(Photo by Jamen Percy)

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.

Participants in colorful costumes (Photo by Scott London)

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.

Safety Third (Photo by Jamen Percy)

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.

(Photo by Yvonne Soy)

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.

Lightsuit guys and cyclists (Photo by Tom Stahl)

Top photo: Mirror Man (Photo by Galen Oakes)

About the author: Jennifer Raiser

Jennifer Raiser

Jennifer Raiser is an avid long-time Burner, Burning Man Project board member and Treasurer, and the author of the book, “Burning Man: Art on Fire.” Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, and numerous publications. As CocoCabana on playa, she appears in Ranger khaki, Gate black, and radically self-expressive cowgirl boots.

11 Comments on “Dress to Impress, Bless, and Process: Clothing as Ritual in Black Rock City

  • LadyBee says:

    Nice article, Jennifer! No surprise there….
    Looking forward to romping in the dust with you.
    And see you at the Maker Reception!


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  • FeatherMooper says:

    …. I realize feathers are again acceptable according to the survival guide, but did you really have to include them (and the headdressed couple) in your blog post? Really?

    Stupid burning man.

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    • Sir Haberdash says:

      Feathers have special meanings, including spiritual, for many of us. And I don’t mean Native Americans, for whom certain types of cultural appropriation is hurtful and for others just plain crass. Feathers remind us of flight, of fancy, and of exotic places and times. Nothing looks like a natural feather. Hunters save feathers. Children gather them in parks. Most of us have picked one up and pressed it between the pages of a book or sent it to a friend. There is nothing like a feather. They have traditionally been part of many types of rituals around the world. Feathers are an honest part of nature and their responsible use is completely in keeping with Burning Man, especially when the theme is Radical Ritual. It’s the responsible part that matters. Like all pieces of attire, feathers must be good quality and secured against escape. NO boas. I sew them first to hats, then use an epoxy that would mend holes in a battleship. They will remain a part of my appreciation of nature, the wind, and ritual. We don’t ban young people because they are noisy and rude, or old people because they are slow and in the way, or polyester because it isn’t natural. We expect people to use their brains.

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  • wizard says:

    Dress to impress is exactly what’s gone wrong in the last decade of the burn. I guess you are one of the yahoos that look at the event as a chance to show off.

    It used to be “Dress to express” which is a not-so-subtle difference.


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    • FeatherMooper says:

      so much YES…and yeah, I’m sick of MOOPing your feathers, hence my username…there was a reason why they were banned. I’m not hateful – just anti-moop. :P

      oh… and guess what, BMV-SF? Disagreeing does not = hate

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  • Playa Nai`a says:

    “Dress to express”– ‘zackly!
    Shocked and delighted to hear from so many that my costumes are “the best,” at my sixth burn, especially as I bring them in a duffle, 3,000 miles (from Maui), and I’m in my 70’s. “Impress”? Not likely. More like one of my “gifts.”

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  • MOOPless in BRC says:

    Lovely article. and Yes! to “dress to express”!!

    But the feathers … argh, the feathers. I still find them revolting. You revolt your way, I shall revolt mine.

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  • Jennifer Raiser says:

    All: Couldn’t agree more about the emphasis on Express versus Impress. Hopefully the article conveys the expressive sentiment that was intended. Note to self: don’t write title as an afterthought at 2:23am when you are trying to get the article turned in. Thanks for the feedback, gratefully accepted and duly noted. One of the best things burners do is call out one another to grow, learn, and change.

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  • BMV-SF says:

    Nice article. As a virgin, sad to see commenters (FeatherMooper, Wizard) are as hateful here as all other commenters out there in the real world. I was hoping burners really were a different breed but I guess people like them are everywhere. We make our own bliss and I’ll make mine and hope I don’t encounter the haters out there.

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  • Lex says:

    I was a virgin burner last year, and was beyond thrilled to be granted my media pass to shoot my first burn. I took that image of Alex and Nikki in the feathered headpieces. When a camp mate showed me the post, I was ecstatic! I didn’t know that the image had been accepted or was being used! However, your negative comments on this feed, and complete disregard for the subjects, who are responsible veteran burners, and very cognizant of any moop those pieces may create, have resulted in the photo being removed. Being published, in general, is an achievement, but being published within the Burning Man community was an honor. Finding this change to the article this morning has greatly saddened me. I hope we can all return to the Playa this year with more compassion for each other, self-expression, and art.

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