Denise Green and the Men of Burning Man

Denise Green is a doctoral student in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.  This is my interview of her on the subject of her research into the annual American counter-cultural Burning Man festival in the desert of Nevada, and in particular, men’s personal and transgressive expression in appearance, as inspired by their experiences and participation in the festival.

Lauren Michel:  How did you select Burning Man as a research topic?

Denise Green:  In the summer of 2007, I began working as a research assistant to Dr. Susan B. Kaiser on a large, multi-site research project titled, Masculine Style(s): Shifting Identities (funded by the United States National Textile Center). In the Masculine Style(s) project, we were hoping to gain a better understanding of men’s relationships with clothing and style. What challenges face contemporary American men when it comes to participating in the fashion system?

Looking to popular media forms, it appeared that we were witnessing a shift and men were becoming increasingly interested in fashion and clothing. Heightened discussion of “the metrosexual,” increased production and distribution of men’s fashion magazines, and the appearance of a more diverse colour palette for men’s clothing were just a few indicators of this shift in masculine styles.

Why was this shift happening now? I wondered more specifically: if a shift was happening, who were the men at the forefront? What were they doing to transform and transgress what had been taken for granted as “normal” men’s clothing and appearance behaviors?

LM:  What kinds of methods did you use in your research?

DG: To answer my research questions I began ethnographic fieldwork to identify and interview men that appeared to be transgressing normative, gendered appearances through clothing and bodily modification. I went to the streets of Northern California with my eyes wide open and began talking to men who were visually questioning norms through dress. These men weren’t cross-dressing, but instead combing masculine and feminine styles of clothing in ways that brought attention to taken-for-granted gender norms.

In my interviews with these men, I asked them to take me through a history of their style evolution. How had their appearance and fashion choices changed over time? Nearly all of these men settle on one particular experience, which they often described as the most transformative: the experience of attending the Burning Man festival.

As a recent transplant to California from the East Coast, I wasn’t entirely familiar with the festival. But, it kept coming up in interviews, which meant that I started to look into it more fully. When I shared this finding with my supervisor, Dr. Kaiser, I asked if I would be able to attend the festival to continue this research. She was supportive of a “grounded theory” approach to research, which involves letting theory emerge from data and following your research as it unfolds. The frequent mention of Burning Man appeared to both of us as a significant finding that warranted further investigation.

The first year of fieldwork at the festival was exploratory, and I met with over 250 men at the festival and conducted informal interviews and kept field notes. I stayed in contact with about 30 of these men over the course of the year and continued with phone, and eventually video, interviews.

As I proceeded with the research, I decided that one way to communicate findings with the general public would be to produce a short documentary. Of the 30 men I maintained contact with, I selected five to participate in the documentary film project. I did what I call “closet interviews”—that is, interviewing men in their closets and using the clothing as material to elicit stories, discussions, and feelings about the role fashion has played in men’s lives.  I went back to the festival in 2008 for the second time, and focused on video taping and photographing. When I returned to the “default world,” [everyday life] I edited the film into a 29-minute documentary, Somewhere in Between, which may be viewed online: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1451701/.

LM:  How would you summarize your findings?

DN:  Attending the Burning Man festival is a transformative experience that hinges upon participation and “radical self-expression.” The festival provides a social and physical space that is much more open and flexible than the everyday, or “default world” as Burners [festival attendees] call it. The community spirit at Burning Man is generally supportive and encouraging, which I found helped people to experiment with their appearances in ways they wouldn’t normally do in their everyday lives.

Wearing skirts, tutus, “furkinis” or generally revealing and gender transgressive clothing is not something that most men in the United States do in their daily lives, but it is something that many men do at the Burning Man festival.

I found that the experience of experimenting with alternative styles and fashions, and then wearing these outfits publicly, had a significant impact on men. When men returned to their everyday lives after the festival, many actively changed their wardrobes. For some, these changes were immense, but for most the changes were subtle. Some men would start wearing brighter colours, occasionally don a necklace or other jewelry, while other men might start wearing skirts or make-up publicly.

Many men told me that Burning Man was their first opportunity to experiment with such a wide-range of fashions and that once they had a taste it was hard to go back to slacks and a polo shirt. I found that the Burning Man experience was transformative, and men returned home after the festival feeling very differently about their bodies and appearances.

LM:  Do you have plans for further study of Burning Man, beyond your current work?

DN:  At the moment, I don’t have any future plans for research at Burning Man…but, who knows what the future may hold. My research focused specifically on men, but it would be interesting to do an in-depth study of women’s experiences with costuming in and outside of the festival. I recently donated a small collection of Burning Man attire to the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, which they were kind enough to accept, dust and all!

Someday, I would like to put together a museum exhibition of Burning Man costume that also includes multi-media (i.e., video) as well. It may also be interesting to do a longitudinal study, and follow this group of 30 men across time. I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. My current project is related to the use of clothing and textiles in ceremonial settings, but is very different from the Burning Man research. Perhaps after I complete my Ph.D., I will take a fresh look at Burning Man.

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Photos:

  1. Denise Green filming on location, 2008.
  2. Festival goer, Burning Man, September 3, 2010, by Jasper Gregory.
  3. Festival goer, Burning Man, September 5, 2010, by Jasper Gregory.
Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of British Columbia

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1 Comment

  • Fudo March 12, 2011 10.03 pm

    Our band is a costume band and though we might not be THAT transgressive, to say we were influenced by Burning Man culture would be a big understatement. Good luck with your research.

     

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