Geoffrey Nelson on the art of Burning Man costuming
Geoffrey Nelson’s artist loft at the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz is brimming with eye-catching Burning Man costumes. Mannequins in elaborate getups stand around in the bright, open space, hinting at the troves of funky clothes hiding in the home’s many closets (including the kitchen pantry) that are stuffed with Black Rock City digs.
Nelson shares his clothing creativity with fellow Burners—veterans and “newbies,” alike—in annual costume workshops.
He wasn’t born a costume aficionado, however. “My first time, I thought wearing a hair clip was really radical,” he laughs. “I walked around with this hair clip on top of my head.” But after 12 years of going to Burning Man, Nelson has his playa style down: like his theme camp, Mo’s Mini Martinis and Erotica, it draws heavily on a Bedouin aesthetic, which harkens back to childhood years he spent living in Morocco and is fitting for the festival’s desert environment.
While his daytime outfits capture a mellow Arabic influence, his nighttime getups are big, bold and colorful. He has an impressive collection of marching band uniforms, as well as traditional Masonic garb. “The Masons are getting rid of all of their traditional, ritual clothes, so I buy them on eBay for around $20,” he explains. He enlivens these already striking outfits with “EL” wire (a long-lasting, durable wire that glows brightly) to make it pop in the desert darkness.
When it comes to dressing for Burning Man, Nelson stresses that one style does not fit all.
“What I encourage in the workshop is for people to try to figure out what would help them express themselves, and go from there, rather than saying, ‘fur is out,’” he says with a laugh. “It’s more about, ‘what is it that you find interesting? When you dress up for something, what feels natural?’ It’s a brainstorming event.”
In past years, Nelson has held these workshops mainly in Nevada over the summer. However, now that he is one of three official Santa Cruz Burning Man Regional Contacts, he plans to do a workshop locally, as well.
Among the advice in his workshops, Nelson warns against forcing anything. “I don’t use the word ‘costume’ too much,” he says. “’Costumes’ gives the sense that you’re dressing up as someone else. But for me, Burning Man is really a way you can express yourself without worrying about anything else. It’s not about being someone else, it’s about being yourself. You don’t want to force it.”
He often reminds first timers that, while you may feel more at home at Burning Man if you are dressed creatively, it’s certainly not necessary. He tells the story of some newbies who saw a man walking down the street at Burning Man in “normal” clothes. “They started yelling ‘no spectators! No spectators!’ at this guy, and, well, the guy ended up being Larry Harvey”—the founder of Burning Man. For those who don’t dress up, Nelson says, “because it is a participant city, I would hope they then contribute in other ways.”
Letting your creativity soar through what you wear is a fun and easy way to participate in the colorful city, he says.
“I’ve always thought of costumes and outfits as another gift—just like the art cars, art, and fire, the costumes are another creative gift that people give to other citizens of the city,” Nelson explains.
But there is an obstacle to costume greatness that troubles each and every Burner: no matter how many amazing items or ideas you have, once you pass through the gates of Black Rock City, you’re unlikely to pull them together like you had hoped.
“You think that you’re going to want to make decisions out there, but Burning Man is really not a good place for making decisions,” Nelson says. “Any decision you’re going to make is either going to be bad or not great.” He attributes this to heat, exhaustion, a messy, dusty tent, and a number of other inevitable Burning Man side effects.
“It gets so confusing out there with all that stuff, so I have a system I use,” he says. Essentially, that system consists of making decisions ahead of time so that “the only choice once you’re there will be which outfit to wear.”
Here’s how it works:
-Before Burning Man, Nelson decides on an outfit for each day and each night that he will be at the festival. No more, and no less. “Don’t bring anything else,” he advises.
-Next, he photographs himself in each outfit. (He keeps a thick photo album filled with photos of his costumes—a nice reference guide for when Halloween or a costume party is fast approaching.)
-Each costume goes into a large Ziploc bag, to which the corresponding photo is clipped or taped. Not only does this simplify the dressing process, it also makes for easier and more organized packing.
-For bulkier jackets and nighttime outfits, Nelson brings along a closet rod that he keeps in the back of his car during the event. “I put the pants, shirt, jacket and hat on a hanger, then I clip a photo of the outfit to it,” Nelson says. “Then I put a rod in the back of the car with the night outfits hanging on it, and leave it in the car. I open up the backseat of the car—it’s always dust free—I grab one and put it on.”
-As for accessories, he also recommends planning those out ahead of time, and placing them in a smaller Ziploc bag within the larger bag containing the outfit.
The whole process takes some diligence beforehand, but Nelson says, “Once you’ve done it, it is just so easy.”
Stay tuned to Santacruzburners.org for details about Nelson’s costume workshop. In the meantime, here are a few more tips from the costume whiz.
-Utilize local treasure troves like the Santa Cruz Flea Market and thrift stores. You can find many a funky item at these locations, as well as cheap clothes that you can rework yourself. “You can repurpose a lot of stuff really cheaply,” Nelson says.
-A touch of EL wire goes a long way in making a warm nighttime outfit into something everyone will enjoy. (Not to mention it will keep you from getting run over by bikes and art cars.)
-If you fear an outfit may be “too out there,” Nelson says to bring it anyway. “Because then you’ll see, oh it’s OK to wear this stuff and it’s fun,” he says. “At first you might not be sure, and then you realize that nobody is noticing you. You’ll realize, ‘I’m wearing thigh highs and a garter belt and no one is staring at me.’”
PHOTOS BY KEANA PARKER.