How Did Burning Man’s Fashion and Art Scene Start?


Wild, eccentric, extravagant, lavish, elegant, weird, nude…if you’re after a splendid and very diverse fashion scene, then the Burning Man is your answer. It has everything you want to see when it comes to fashion. In fact, you can say the Burning Man’s fashion and art scene is all the fashion shows put together, and more!

The Burning Man’s fashion and art scene is notoriously exciting. From casual everyday clothes to flamboyant costumes, people are dressed up not only to express themselves but to release their inner creativity without fear of judgment and raised eyebrows. It’s like it’s Halloween for nine whole days at the Burning Man. You can dress up as casually as you want or as outrageously as you dare. You can even go buck-naked if you feel like it! But a fair warning though; mind the kids. Everybody’s welcome at the Burning Man, so yes, there will be children.

As the years pile on, the costumes people wear during the Burn become even more extravagant. There’s this silent need to become even more creative and innovative, a need to surpass last year’s creation.

The art pieces, too, have grown significantly more inventive and interactive. They have also grown in numbers, giving Burners more art pieces to appreciate and love, and talk about for months to come.

But how did the Burning Man, this temporary city in the Black Rock Desert, become the hub of fashion and art during this nine-day event?

When did the Burners start wearing costumes?

The first Burning Man event (1986) was composed of a small group of 35 individuals. It was originally held in San Francisco’s Baker Beach and was mostly made up of artists. There were no costumes then. They wore whatever was comfortable for them – jeans, shirts, overalls, etc.

But by 1990 and as the number of participants grew, people started experimenting with costumes. The popular costumes during the early 1990s were punk-inspired ones. Animal-print jackets also became a thing.

When the Burning Man moved to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, the fun act of wearing costumes during the Burn exploded. It was also around this time that costumes became a huge part of the event’s art displays, with some men even wearing outlandish female clothes.

The early 1990s also marked the establishment of the first camp theme, the Christmas Camp. In 1993, two of their members dressed up in Santa costumes and gave away treats.

The mid-1990s saw the explosion of facial decorations, with one participant adorning his face with bright gemstones. Face painting also became widely popular.

As the 1990s came to a close, the costumes became even more lavish. Burners also began incorporating props and extravagant, eye-catching accessories into their ensembles. There was also an increase in attendees going around in their birthday suits. Some also wore colorful bodypaint.

As the 2000s rolled in, attendees began to let go of their creative inhibitions and became bolder. The costumes became more extravagant, and people were not afraid to showcase their artistic sides when it comes to decorating their costumes, wigs, and masks.

This decade also saw the rapid rise of neon and glow-in-the-dark costumes. Colorful neon costumes and bright lights became very trendy. Rainbow shirts and rainbow pants, vibrant jackets, and equally colorful accessories were a must.

Because there are no barriers to art and peoples’ creativity and quirkiness, some attendees also dressed up in layers of clothes. Fringe jackets, lively scarves, fuzzy hats, colorful tights – they were everywhere. These costumes were too hot for the warm days, but they served as good protection against the dust, sand, and very cool evenings.

Sheer clothes also became a thing. Wispy, willowy fabrics adorned with gems, colorful headpieces, brilliant costume jewelries, and elegant makeup became a thing. Some female participants also wore wedding gowns complete with veils. Whimsical costumes, fairy outfits, circus-like outfits were also popular.

The trend of wearing unicorn horns popped up in the early 2010s. The more eye-catching they were, the better. By 2015, extravagantly-decorated bodysuits paired with lavish boots were one of the favorites. Body armors, LED-lit space costumes, and skimpy sparkling outfits were also a thing.

Men wearing neon crop tops paired with outlandish accessories such as bow ties and colorful, wispy tutus were also a favorite. Intricate beaded costumes and headgears were also popular among women.

When it comes to Burning Man costumes, only your imagination can limit you. You can dress up as outrageously as you dare and you’ll still fit right in.

When did the art performances and pieces start appearing in the Burning Man?

By 1991, the Burning Man already had a legal permit. But what made the gathering extra special that year was Crimson Rose, a fine art model as well as a fire dancer. She introduced fire dancing to the event, which became one of the highlights of Burning Man In addition to the fire dance, 1991 also marked the start of neon lights. Towering at 40 feet, the effigy was decorated for the first time in bright neon lights.

1992 saw an increase in the Burning Man’s attendees. From 1991’s 250, the participants ballooned to 600. It was also during this time that the first two art pieces were added and EDM camp was launched. The next year, the Burning Man had three art pieces.

As mentioned earlier, the first theme camp was also established in 1993. Called Christmas Camp, its members dressed up in Santa costumes and gave the attendees (now at about 1,000) gifts in the form of eggnog and fruitcakes.

Around the same year, a smaller group of artists were also gathering in the Nevada desert to create art and participate in performances. Called Desert Siteworks, it was a week-long event that was also held during the Summer Solstice. The director, William Binzen, was a friend of Harvey’s. Because their two events were almost similar in theme, the two formally merged in 1996 and opened it to the public, attracting 8,000 attendees. This time, there were 11 art pieces and several theme camps. It was also during this year that the Burning Man had its first theme, called Inferno.

The number of attendees increased each year as word-of-mouth made the Burning Man even more popular. By 1997, the total number of attendees was around 10,000, and the number of art pieces has doubled to 21. The Man, during this year, stood at a whopping 50 feet.

The steady rise of the Burning Man’s popularity is truly amazing. What started out as a small gathering of 35 people in 1986 grew to a whopping 80,000 by 2019. Attended by people with unique and very creative personalities, the art pieces also grew from two in 1992 to more than 383 by 2018. The number of theme camps also increased, from the lone Christmas Camp in 1993 to 1,472 in 2018. As for the costumes, they remain simply breathtaking, with attendees trying to outdo their costumes from the previous years.

The effigy’s height also grew through the years. From 8 feet in 1986, it reached as high as 105 feet in 2014. Its decorations have also grown even more elaborate, showcasing the creativeness of its makers and highlighting the year’s theme.

What are the rules and restrictions when it comes to costumes and art pieces?

Your imagination may be the only thing that can limit your creativity in making and decorating your costumes as well as art pieces. But the Burning Man has strict rules and restrictions though that you need to follow.

For one, the use of glitters is a big no-no, so is the use of any decorative pieces that can easily fall off of your body and costumes. This includes gems, feathers, sequins, small ribbons, tiny bells, etc. Anything, really, that can fall off of you is frowned upon. Yes, you can hot glue them to your costumes, headpieces, bikes, tents, or your body. But the hot sun will melt the glue off, and your decorative pieces will come off. If that happens, you’d be putting someone through a bit of torture picking these items off of the playa’s hot sand with a pair of tweezers.

Two, for art pieces, all decorations must be fastened or attached securely. These should not be easily torn off by high winds and heavy rains, which are pretty common in the playa.

The Burning Man has a very strict Leave No Trace policy. So if you leave your area dirty, you can expect to see your campsite posted on their site. This can easily get you banned from attending more Burning Man events.

Final Thoughts

From a simple gathering around a bonfire, the Burning Man, for nine days, becomes the center of fashion and art, a temporary city where you can share and enjoy the community’s talents and gifts. And for decades, the Burning Man has given people a place to unleash their creativity and innovativeness. These skills can be seen in the wide variety of costumes, headgears, jewelries, bikes, tents, camps, art pieces, among others.

We can expect more lavish and extravagant costumes and art pieces for years to come as Burners become even more creative and innovative. But as a responsible Burner though, it’s important to keep in mind the Burning Man’s Leave No Trace policy when creating them.


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