Features and Occasionals

Designers in the Dust

By Alice Toler

As the reputation of the annual Burning Man festival in northwestern Nevada has expanded, the international media is now flooded once a year with imagery of its architecture, art and citizenry. The art of costuming has been brought to a pinnacle in Black Rock City, and the event has spawned its own palette of fashion that combines the outrageous with an industrial level of practicality. CATALYST spoke with seven dapper desert dwellers about their sense of style, and asked them to share with us what makes a great Burning Man outfit.

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As the reputation of the annual Burning Man festival in northwestern Nevada has expanded, the international media is now flooded once a year with imagery of its architecture, art and citizenry. The art of costuming has been brought to a pinnacle in Black Rock City, and the event has spawned its own palette of fashion that combines the outrageous with an industrial level of practicality. CATALYST spoke with seven dapper desert dwellers about their sense of style, and asked them to share with us what makes a great Burning Man outfit.

Jodi Mardesich Smith is a tech writer who covers open source cloud software, and she first attended Burning Man in 2000. She offers some overall tips:

“There are two facets to clothing out there—fashion and survival. For fashion, it’s less about how it looks and more about how it makes you feel. In a way, you are ‘set directing’ your experience, and what you wear helps you step into that experience. Think fabulous, luxurious, soft, sturdy, supportive, shiny, furry—but you also have to consider function. A shawl you can dip into an icy cooler and wear during the blazing heat is a great piece, and you should have some great goggles to throw on during dust storms, and always a dust mask with you, too…these things are necessities.”

Another experienced Burner fashionista is Kimiko Riley, an artist at Wasatch Glass in Salt Lake City. She has been traveling to the playa for 16 years now and has seen a lot of changes to the event. She has some very specific recommendations about what clothes to wear and how to care for them in Black Rock City’s alkaline and dusty environment. “If you love a piece, definitely think about if it’s going to get ruined out there! The dust will sometimes make your leather boots squeaky, so pleather is easier to care for—you just wipe it off. You will be walking around a lot, so comfy footwear is paramount. I wear five-inch platform boots, but they are actually flats because they have no rise to the heel; I can walk around in them all day.”

About the current state of fashion, she has a few concerns. “I buy clothes by designers who I know from Burning Man, and I love these clothes! But I feel like there’s been a bit too much of an L.A. influence since the event has gotten so much bigger. It used to be just about self-expression, but lately some parts of the event seem more style-conscious. I’d like to see more of a return to ‘wear what makes you feel fabulous’ and don’t worry what other people are thinking about you! I really love the personal aspects of fashion, and I love when people dive deeper into it. Think about what you want to do. What have you always wanted to wear, but never had the courage to? That’s what you should wear at Burning Man.””

Robin Alexandra has the courage to wear whatever she wants! And what she wants to wear these days are tutus. She founded her own company, Atypical Tutus, earlier this year after winning a fashion show in Colorado with her wild creations. She has made tutus out of bicycle inner tubes, Carhartt overalls, silk upholstery fabric, camouflage canvas and more. “I love the variety of expression you find at Burning Man,” she says. “This will be my fifth year at the burn, and I can’t wait to get to the playa. Some of the costumes you’ll see out there that just transport you into another world with the vision of the wearer. I’ve been making costumes of one sort or another for 25 years now, and Burning Man is the most amazing place for fashion that I have ever seen.”

There’s a phrase you’ll hear about Black Rock City fashion: “Dress well, or not at all.” You won’t see a lot of unadorned nudity; but in the city’s famed heat, it’s best not to overdress. CATALYST’s Greta Belanger deJong, who has been going to Burning Man since 2001, recalls learning this lesson her first year: “I put together what I thought was a wonderful ‘outfit’—flowy skirt, beaded top, wide sash and a parasol. It was so hot that all I ended up wearing was the sash with the parasol.”

Other favored daytime items include a short strapless dress made out of a curtain valence, fastened with Velcro; and a no-sew laniard skirt, the result of finding a large bag of laniards at a thrift store and some confidence-building brainstorming with costume designer Jennifer McGrew.

For nighttime, when temps in the 40s are not uncommon, her favorite piece is a floor-length coat, a gift from Nicole deVaney who’d had a seamstress friend cinch the back of a heavy brocade bathrobe with leather cords, and edge the hood in black feathers. Greta says the piece de resistance of her wardrobe, however, is a fiber-optic gossamer cape aptly named Serafina, created by Alice Toler [who is writing this story]. A beautifully lit costume or accessory is a gift to all on the playa at night—and it helps your friends find you, too.

Trent Toler used to be a fashion emergency, though you’d never believe it given his current stylistic expression, which includes tastefully sized ear gauges and a flamboyant mustache.

“Before I went to Burning Man for the first time in 2008, I had no idea how I wanted to dress. I wore what I’d worn in grad school, which was basically climbing and hiking gear. I’m an environmental consultant and I was a field biologist at the time, so I just kept wearing those clothes. I didn’t like what I was wearing, but I didn’t know how to change.”

But Black Rock City really drew Trent out of his shell. “In a single year I went from beat-up Patagonia and flannels to an Elvis jumpsuit with ‘TNT’ spelled out in rhinestones on the back,” he confesses, “and in 2010 I designed my own outfit and took part in a fashion show for the annual White Party.” A veteran of the punk scene from the 1980s, Trent has an eye for both historical and punk-inflected style. “I love the juxtaposition of something really elaborate with the extreme conditions in the desert,” he says. “I get tired of the ‘raver fuzzy’ gear that people wear to festivals that all looks the same. It’s nice when people put in the effort to be individual.”

In recent years, the Burning Man culture has spilled out from the original event and now there are dozens of affiliated “regionals” all over the country and the globe that spread Black Rock City’s ethos of decommodification and personal expression. Julie Pellerin, AKA Miss Velvet Hammer, is the Maven of Camp Wardrobe MalFUNKtion, which is a costuming theme camp that travels to several regional events each year, including Utah’s Element 11 festival. With her collaborator Princess Stephanie, Miss Velvet Hammer is available to help any dowdy burner spark up his or her personal look. “We gift from 3,000 to 7,000 pounds of costuming per event,” she says. “We feature a store staffed with friendly fashion engineers and wardrobe technicians who will costume participants with a new look. Our exit is a fashion show runway, with music and an emcee. We also feature a roaming crew of fashion police, intent on preventing fashion emergencies.”

Princess Stephanie himself has headed up several costuming projects at Burning Man including a wedding dress parade, and he also runs a costume-filled ambulance service there called the Burn Unit. This roving vehicle full of fashion medics brings style to the frumpy wherever they might be found at the event.

Where do these mavens get, quite literally, tons of costuming to give away for free? “I have made connections with a local costume shop in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado,” Miss Velvet Hammer explains. “They donate to us all of the broken, damaged and back-stock merchandise at their store. I also receive clothes from a consignment shop which gives us whatever hasn’t sold. I use fundraising money to go to the yard sales in the spring, after the college students have left. I’ve forged relationships with the University of Colorado dormitories, and after their big yard sale I’m allowed to take what’s left over before the Goodwill truck arrives. The UC sorority houses also have a big garage sale and there are a lot of nice costumes and clothing items there. I solicit the community on Facebook for donations, and I just have my eye out for free clothing anywhere I go.” Wardrobe MalFUNKtion has even been incorporated as a 501c(3) nonprofit, so all those donations are tax-deductible!

Health and fitness expert Nicole deVaney, pictured, title page, says, “This outfit was created for my first burn in 2009, I didn’t know what to expect or how to dress. Turns out the dress code is anything from shirt cockers to the goddess Kali.” Nicole thinks of the body as one’s temple and clothing as the art that adorns its walls; and Burning Man as an opportunity to try on roles that are anything from ordinary. “After fastening the leather fringe that a friend had meticulously cut and custom fit for me, I ran free around the playa like a wild savage, jumping on pyramids and dancing for the rain gods. Later I rolled through the dust and growled like a wild jaguar—all the while falling deeper in love the with sexy photographer who played with me from dusk until dawn [Weston Hall, whose self portrait is this month’s cover]. I have a closet full of personality thanks to my three adventures to the Man. Playing dress up should not stop after childhood and neither should imagination.”

A couple years ago, Tom Sobieski’s devotion to expressive fashion led him to leap from a career in insurance to founding his own local craft and consignment store, Iconoclad, on 3rd South. “We put a lot of emphasis on fun, gifting, and making sure that everyone has an excellent experience,” he says. “We try to play with everyone as much as possible.”

Tom has been going to Burning Man for five years, and loves the excitement there of “60,000-plus people hellbent on amusing each other. The fashions are explosive creative energy combined with a dash of comfort and utility. We don’t do many pre-made Halloween costumes here!” His personal favorite items to wear? “A hat with LED-lit horns, and my big spike-and-chain shoulder pads that look straight out of Mad Max. It’s so fulfilling to be creative with what you’re going to wear, do it yourself, and amuse the hell out of other people with it.”

Inspiration runs rampant at Burning Man. “First-timers should be prepared, but don’t plan too hard. Your plans will likely go right out the window! And get your ass out of camp and see what everyone else is up to!”

Kelli Baker made a similar life change after attending Burning Man. “I come from a practical family,” she says, “and they wanted me to major in business, so I did. I didn’t allow myself to be creative.” She was so inspired by the event that she went back to school and got a degree from the Fashion Institute at Salt Lake Community College, and then went on to graduate from the International Bra-Making School in Hamilton, Ontario. Back in Salt Lake, she showed her designs to her former professors at SLCC, and immediately landed a job there teaching Beginning Sewing, Intro to Fashion and Swimwear/Intimate Wear at the Institute. She won first place at the “Inspired By Vitamin Water” fashion show in 2011, and second place in 2014’s Fantasy Con show with a pink and black steampunk peacock outfit.

“Burning Man is not like Halloween,” see says. “You can come to the festival in a Batman costume, but that’s not what it’s about. I tell people to wear what you’d wear if you knew nobody was judging you.”

First time attendees should read the Event Survival Guide that’s sent along with your tickets, but Kelli sums it up more quickly. “On the first day of daylight, you need to focus on setting up your camp and getting relaxed and ready,” she says. “Resist the urge to go out while you’re still tired. It’s when the sun goes down that you must go out and experience Burning Man. It’s so amazing and mind-blowing, you won’t regret it! My only rule is to do things in moderation,” she laughs. “Do everything you can, but in moderation.”

But it’s hard to be moderate or reasonable when it comes to Burning Man. The event is so inspiring that it regularly transforms shabby fashion caterpillars into extravagant and ornamental stylistic butterflies, who take charge of their lives and wear their creativity out loud. Radical Self-Expression is one of Burning Man’s “Ten Principles,” and bringing that principle out into the wider world spreads an immediacy and personal authenticity that is refreshing to see. In a world where people are overwhelmed daily by hyper-processed media and advertising, the gritty fashion ethos of Burning Man brings substance to style. It inspires you to find your passion, follow it, and let your freak flag fly!

Alice Toler, here modeling a tutu by Robin Alexandra, is a lighting designer, fine artist and amateur architect who designed the temple at this summer’s Element 11 gathering, as well as the Snake Goddess from the 2013 event (which now resides in the CATALYST office) and the 30-ft. Bee Goddess for Burning Man 2012. Her fashion-designing highpoint is the creation of two el-wire gossamer capes.

This article was originally published on August 1, 2015.