What Kind of Costume Should I Wear at Burning Man?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Jack Stahl, Burning Man Lover

First of all, in the words of Randal Truong, "chicks dig n00bs." That is to say: don't stress too much, since often no costume is the best and most genuine costume of all. Coming to Burning Man when you don't know what you're in for is even cooler than coming to Burning Man when you do. Second, as with any Burning-Man-related advice, there's an implicit preface of "I'm offering this as a gift if you'd appreciate some direction, but you are actively encouraged to completely ignore anything i say if your heart tells you otherwise." With one exception: under no circumstances should you consider shirt-cocking.

One thing I've really valued about Burning Man is letting go of your identity. One of the hardest things for me personally to grasp was the idea that what I wore to Burning Man was supposed to express myself ... but be totally different from what I normally wear, even though I feel totally comfortable in wearing exactly what I wanted on a day-to-day basis already. But it's not that you dress up as some vampire-fairy because you've always felt you're a vampire-fairy inside and society never let you, it's that you dress up as a vampire-fairy because you've never let yourself be one, and if you do, you'll find that you are one.

Along the same lines is the idea that you do not judge people. In real life, when you see someone in dreadlocks, you think "hey, a hippie." At Burning Man, when you see someone in dreadlocks, you think, "hey, a person." Again, it is not that costumes allow people to show who they "really are," it's that the prevalence of costumes allow people to have fun and explore alternative selves without making a statement.

Of course, that doesn't mean that you must try out every single costume idea regardless of whether it feels right. I personally get my inspiration from video game heroes and movie badasses. In the past, I've dressed up in post-apocalyptic military garb because they made me feel like I was living (as a badass) on another planet. This year, I'm planning in dressing up in animal-inspired outfits that make me feel wild. Other people get in touch with their rainbow side. Or dress in honor of their favorite time period. Discovering your own personal fantasy is a process, and there's no rush, but it's good both to push your own boundaries and to listen to what feels right.

Finally, there's something of a difference between daytime and nighttime wear. For your first time, I'd suggest getting some basic functional gear for the daytime, and putting together a fun outfit or two for the night time.

Some tips:

  • It's really hot during the day, so a lot of people, guys and girls, end up going shirtless. Other good alternatives include hippie sundresses or clothing you got while traveling in a hot climate, like Africa or Thailand.
  • Also, because it's hot and you're not wearing many clothes, the day time is a good opportunity for intricate body paint
  • Regardless of your gender or sexuality, consider shopping in the women's section of a thrift store. Gender/sexuality is one of those distinctions, like quantizing time into days, that can seem kind of silly once you get to Burning Man, and letting go of your identification as a heterosexual male (or whatever) is a good step towards letting go of your identity. Plus, on a practical level, there tends to be more interesting stuff in the women's sections.
  • Sometimes people get confused and think you need a "costume," like something you would pick up at Party City. That's totally fine, but it's also good to find fun pieces that mix-and-match. It can be fun to leave some room to get creative when assembling outfits on the playa.
  • For all its talk of individuality and openness, Burning Man is still susceptible to trends. Fur can be found in all syles (natural and psychedelic, classy and trashy), whether in boots: http://www.scavengeinc.com/image... or coats: http://www.loupiote.com/burningm.... Of course, there's a reason: fur keeps you warm!
  • More popular these days is a mix of steam-punk / post-apocalyptic leather a la Mad Max: http://nerinonline.com/wp-conten.... Personally I find this style kind of fun: you are a badass, so you might as well dress like one. If you're in San Francisco, consider visiting Five and Diamond to get a feel. There's also a more tribal/pagan subculture with roots in the Goa/psytrance scene that you can find at Ceiba.
  • Do something crazy with your hair. Why not?
  • At night, the most important thing is that you're well lit. You'll want your friends to be able to find you. EL wire generally looks the coolest and stays bright a long time. Consider lacing your backpack, jacket, or hat with EL wire. However, you probably don't want to have to wear anything all the time, so bring glow sticks or something else more versatile also. A lot of costumes also can be buiilt around the EL-Wire, such as http://www.loupiote.com/burningm... or
  • The nighttime temperature can be fairly unpredictable, ranging from say 40 to 75 degrees. As such, layers can be helpful, although keep in mind that you won't want to have to carry a large fur coat around with you until 7am if it turns out to be hot.
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