Nearly two years ago, after Hurricane Sandy, I volunteered in the Rockaways alongside one disarmingly charming former U.S. Marine. Not only did this man surprise me by making me fall head over heels in love with him almost immediately, but he threw me for another loop when, on our first date, he told me about the importance of Burning Man in his life. Though he didn’t state it outright, I understood that if this relationship was going to last, the two of us were going to be journeying to the Black Rock Desert, annually.
Last year, however, nature intervened and the impending arrival of my son Wolf postponed my virgin voyage. But this summer there was nothing to hold us back except my own fears and anxieties—which were quickly overruled.
What was I so afraid of? In truth it was not the harsh desert conditions (I’d have a Marine by my side to troubleshoot) or the sheer scale of the festival (some 66,000 Burners inhabit Black Rock City for one sleepless week). It was the fashion. Honest to goodness. Have you seen what Burners wear (or rather DON’T wear)? When Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy is your style saint and on more than one occasion your look is described as “New England with a bohemian twist,” Burner style can seem like a very distant and daunting prospect.
Earlier in the summer, Yvonne Force and Leo Villareal, one of the founders of our Burning Man camp, Disorient, assured me I would find my own individual Playa look and recommended several websites for inspiration. (If you want to find out how to dress like Burning Man Establishment, check out Yvonne’s Instagram account @yvonneforce—she’s the real deal). “Radical Self-expression” is one of the ten guiding principles of Burning Man and with Yvonne’s encouragement I slowly started to get excited about dressing radically like myself—with a Playa twist of course.
My Marine and I visited Burning Man treasure mecca Screaming Mimi’s on Lafayette Street to ante up and we stumbled upon vintage vanguard and Vogue Contributing Editor Lynn Yaeger while there. After I’d tried on several pieces, Lynn bluntly scolded me, “Meredith, this stuff just looks like what you would wear at Fashion Week.” “Radically myself” was taking shape, it seemed. When I went back to pick up some of my purchases that had been altered, the sales staff told me they were inspired—apparently my selects were refreshingly different from the neon/Barbarella/S&M bits that define typical Burner looks they see. My confidence was gradually mounting. . .
. . . but then it plummeted just as quickly in an ensuing exchange with another fellow camper later that week:
Fellow Camper: “Sooooo, show me what you’ve bought to wear at Burning Man.”
Me: “Oh, no, it’s OK. It’s not that exciting. It’s kind of pieces that I would normally wear.”
Fellow Camper: “You can’t do that! That’s not the point! You’ve got to dress up!”
Me: “Yeah, but, I’m not really into neon and stuff. . . ”
Fellow Camper: “Neon? It’s not about neon! The look is more ’intergalactic desert storm trooper.’ Wait until you see the custom costumes I’m having made!”
I held back tears. I was going to be a big Burning Man loser! Or was I?
What follows is the story of what inspired my look, what I actually wore, and what I have my heart set on for Burning Man 2015 (yes, I will return).
Burning Man is so much about the art and the music. The art would have to wait but I decided to start listening to the music for inspiration and mood. I’d heard endless raving about the Robot Heart sunrise dance party, rumored to be the best on the Playa (especially if you can secure a spot atop the Robot Heart art car—which we did), so I spent time on Robot Heart’s Soundcloud page to get ready.
Stage: Courtesy of Christian Lamb
Overall Look Inspiration
Before I packed my bags, I drew influence from a number of places, taking into account considerations both practical (the sand, the drastic fluctuations in temperature) and the recommended fanciful (play along, Meredith, play along).
For days spent under the unrelenting desert sun, I packed lots of crochet dresses and American Apparel underpinnings, inspired by Jane Birkin in La Piscine.
Photo: (from top) Courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures; Courtesy of Meredith Melling
For cold desert nights, I bought a flight suit inspired by Goose and Maverick in Top Gun, and an essential faux leopard fur inspired by Edie Sedgwick. I am obsessed with my flight suit! I may even wear it during New York Fashion Week. It was the perfect item for the aforementioned Robot Heart party since as the sun came up and temperatures would rise once again, you could peel down the top portion and tie the arms around your waist. Voilà!
Photo: (from top) Courtesy of Paramount Pictures; Courtesy of Court Pictures
Harem pants were highly recommended by most for their ease and I happened to have a pair that was gifted to me by a friend two summers ago. I paired them with a cropped peasant top, again channeling Jane Birkin. It was the outfit I wore when I arrived in Black Rock City. If you’ve never been to Burning Man, you should know that, upon entry all “virgins” are compelled to make dust angels on the desert floor. Needless to say this look was a one-time wear only.
Photo: (clockwise from top left) Everett Collection; Getty Images; Courtesy of Meredith Melling
I also bought a long white dress, referencing Leelee Sobieski in an early Raf Simons for Dior number—I thought it was going to be a dramatic evening look but it turned out to be so cumbersome while riding a bike around to different camps and parties at night that I decided to wear it by day instead.
Burning Man became the perfect opportunity to break in my Vivienne Westwood pirate boots which I purchased over five years ago and still had yet to wear because they were too “new” looking. One hour in the desert and they were as good as Kate Moss’s!
Realizing I needed an identifying accessory to take my “radically myself” clothes into Playa territory, I settled on a Where the Wild Things Are crown we found at Screaming Mimi’s and wore it with everything.
Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Melling
I knew that sporadic, dreadlock-inducing dust storms were likely, so to prepare, I invited my dear friend and talented hair and makeup artist Alexa Rodulfo to teach me how to braid my hair. I opted for two simple braids in the front to keep my hair out of my face when the winds picked up.
Initially, I had planned to apply hundreds of tiny glitter stars under my eyes as my statement beauty look (I practiced this with Alexa too), but upon arrival I learned in great detail about the lengths the camp’s environmental groups go to to preserve the desert’s natural state. Needless to say, glitter that could potentially flutter to the ground is a big no-no and would indeed have made me a big Burning Man loser.
Enter: Flash Tattoos. On of my RV-mates bought extras and they were the perfect substitute.
Boring but worth mentioning for anyone taking notes for Burning Man 2015: Sunscreen and chapstick are utterly essential. And a pro tip: Spray sunscreen goes on easy and the dust does not stick to your body (and is even easier to reapply over crochet dresses!).
Burning Man 2015
Now that I am a seasoned Burner, I’m actually looking forward to going back . . . all the wiser. I would do many things differently, including taking my braids a bit further to prevent the dreading (see Chanel), adding more color to my wardrobe (see Nick Cave), and channeling the masculine/feminine vibe of Jack Sparrow. Until next year!
Photo: (clockwise from top left) photographed by Raymond Meier, Vogue, September 2010; Everett Collection; Yannis Vlamos/Indigitalimages.com
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