The Essential Guide to Burning Man Costume Shopping
San Francisco is a town that lives for a costume challenge, and Burning Man is the Olympics of costuming. You need ensembles that are eye-catching, bike-friendly, and ready to weather the elements. Heat waves, wind storms, desert chills, rain—anything is possible on the Playa.
If you Google "Burning Man photos," you'll notice that most of the outfits in Black Rock City fall into one of two camps: steam punk or holographic candy raver unicorn. That's not to say those are your only options; merely that they're the most prevalent. When it comes to costume shopping for the Burn, the Haight offers the highest concentration of Playa-friendly looks in the city. The Mission comes in second, between Five and Diamond and the plethora of vintage and thrift stores scattered around the neighborhood. Beyond hitting up brick-and-mortar stores, you can also extend your search to independent artisans who create Burneresque jackets, headpieces, gloves, and belts. While it's a busy time for them, several are still accepting orders for pre-Burn fulfillment.
Many of the options I've included fall on the pricier side because they are small, local businesses and makers. For BRC neophytes, that may seem counterintuitive since this is a community that values gifting and decommodification among its ten guiding principles. Burning Man may not be a commerce-driven experience, but you will spend an obscene amount of money getting there. Between admission, transportation, food, water, and clothing, the experience easily runs into the thousands. You could certainly outfit yourself for less exclusively through Amazon, but shopping locally allows you to tap into another principle: communal effort. You can support creatives near you, keep money in the community, and potentially forge a relationship with the person who's making or sourcing your outfit. (How often does that happen when buy via Prime?)
Or, as a cost-saving alternative, simply stock up on sunscreen and walk around naked. You won't be the only one. But, for those of you who want to shop, read on to the best choices. I've highlighted 14 standouts here, mostly in the Haight and the Mission, but there are more spots worth checking in the map below.
Haight Street Highlights
Distractions (1552 Haight Street) If you're digging the Victorian or steam punk vibes, Distractions should be your first stop. The pieces in the store—from waistcoats to bustles to corsets to top hats, are beautifully made. The staff is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to questions of Playa functionality, so they'll stop you from making any poor (or MOOP-y) decisions. Looking for more modern pieces? Faux leather jackets? Light-up faux fur jackets? Keep walking to the back of the store. Fun fact: Owner Jim Siegel is a longtime Burner, and Distractions was once one of the only places where attendees could purchase tickets to the festival.
Piedmont Boutique (1452 Haight Street) Yep, this is the Haight Street shop with the fishnet-clad legs hanging out of the second-floor window. It's a phenomenal costume resource because they make everything imaginable—pants, tutus, bra tops, skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, and coats—in every color you could want. Piedmont also takes custom orders, which are sewn in San Francisco. But... I feel conflicted about the quality. This is one of the truest examples of getting what you pay for. Prices are cheap, and the items aren't really built to last. (I've had seams pull apart on the first wear on items I purchased here.) That said, if you're on a limited budget and handy with a needle and a thread, the store is full of fun items, and every accessory you can dream of.
Wild Feather (597 Haight Street) This spot focuses on San Francisco designers who produce locally, but you'll also find a few makers from LA in the mix. Standouts include the sequin duster-length baroness coats from Tamo Design, kimonos from SuperSugarRayRay, sparkly jumpsuits and leotards from Temple Ro, and intricate headpieces and jewelry from Venus Superstar. Wild Feather participates in a lot of the pre-festival shows like Five and Diamond's Pre-Playa Loft Sale and Beyond the Fence, so if you missed your chance to buy something sparkly and life-changing at one of the multi-vendor shows, head here for a best of burner makers do-over.
Cal Surplus (1541 Haight Street) An army surplus store on a Burning Man shopping list? You betcha. Cal Surplus is a reasonably-priced resource for boots, jackets, a goggles, as well as jaunty military caps that you can spice up during a DIY binge. The store sells foreign and domestic surplus clothing and boots, as well as a large selection of work clothing, (e.g. Carhartt, Dickie, and Ben Davis). Still need a sleeping bag or camping gear? They've got you covered.
Held Over (1543 Haight Street) If you're down to use true vintage in a Playa ensemble, Held Over is extremely-well organized, both by decade and theme, (e.g. Fifties Prom, Eighties Secretary, etc.) Plus, you'll find lots of vintage accessories, particularly crinolines and military hats and coats. If you're planning on spinning fire in Black Rock City, they also stock a decent selection of leather jeans and chaps. As far as Haight Street vintage shops go, prices are pretty reasonable.
Ceiba (1364 Haight Street) Ceiba describes itself tribal-futuristic-alternative fashion, which is an appropriate term for this Haight Street gem. I'm going to be really honest about the pricing here: this is not the store for Burners on a Budget. But it is the place where you can find a $700 sculpted leather harness, which you might just want to wear forever and ever because it's that beautiful. You can also score a more wallet-friendly $400 hooded bra, an $1800 black Matrix-ish coat that could easily pass for Rick Owens, and Skingraft tunics. It's a goldmine of well-made pieces for the Playa (with the subsequent leather dry cleaning bill), or for anyone who wants to look like they stepped off a well-styled dystopian film set.
Dolls Kill (1475 Haight Street) This San Francisco-based online retailer has a shop on Haight Street filled with outrageously glam boots and bodysuits, along with other festival-ready apparel and accessories. (If your Burner style falls more within the futuristic raver camp, go to their website, type "holographic" in the search field, and prepare to have your mind blown.) Prices online can range from the double digits, (think $30s/$50s) to the low thousands (for embellished leather outerwear). In store, expect to stay within the $30-$200 range.
Five and Diamond (510 Valencia Street) If you only have time for one pre-Playa stop in the Mission, this should be it. Five and Diamond leans toward the post-Apocalyptic side of costuming. Think handmade pants with heavy patchwork or moto-stitching details, badass goggles, spiked leather jackets, gloves, and more. The store stocks their own designs, as well as carrying pieces from local artisans. They also host annual headgear contest, (see the photo to the left), so there are usually a few showstoppers in the store for purchase. If you're on a budget, check the sale section in the back of the store. Leading up to the Burn, Five and Diamond is open until 8 pm Sunday-Thursday, and 9 pm Friday-Saturday. They'll also be hosting their Pre-Playa Loft Sale across the street above Harrington Galleries (599 Valencia) on Saturday, August 18 from 12pm-8pm and Sunday, August 19 from 12pm-6pm.
Community Thrift (623 Valencia Street) Yes, there are cheap options on this list, too. Community Thrift, that hot pink thrift shop on Valencia, requires a fair amount of digging, but it's large, clean (for a thrift shop) and well-organized. Plus, the money raised at the store goes right back into the community. (No, it's not just a clever name.) There's new merchandise coming in all the time, so it's worth a trip or two if you've got to keep your costume budget down. Consider this a resource for coats you can spruce up with el-wire, or boots that you can dress up with some DIY flair.
Fabric Outlet (2109 Mission Street) Fabric Outlet is back home in its original space, (after a year occupying the former Thrift Town next door). The shop is beloved for its seemingly always-on-sale supply of fabrics. Even if you don't know how to sew, you can find psychedelic prints here that could work for sarongs, capes, and head coverings.
Knob's (432 Castro Street) Knobs leans more toward rave-wear, but you can find whimsical, Playa-appropriate briefs and singlets, too. If you're in the Castro/Haight area for costume implements, it's worth a stop. Bonus: the staff here is hilarious.
Mr. S Leather - Link is NSFW (385 8th Street) If you don't feel comfortable in a bondage store, do not go here. If you feel weird about walking into a store that's playing porn on a flat screen, this is not the place for you. If those things don't bother you, Mr. S is one of the best-kept secrets in leather deals. You can find tops, jackets, briefs, harnesses—all pieces that would cost you a lot more in a traditional store.
Scrap (801 Toland Street) Did you know that San Francisco is trying to divert all waste from landfills by 2020? So far, that seems like an unrealistic goal, but Scrap is making headway in helping crafty people waste less by reusing bits and bobs that are traditionally tossed out with the trash. This space is a treasure hunt, so be prepared to dig.
Beyond the standard brick and mortar operations, don't forget about monthly pop-ups like the Alameda Flea Market on first Sunday of every month, and TreasureFest (formerly the Treasure Island Flea Market) on the last weekend of every month. Flea markets can yield great deals on outwear to see you through the cold desert nights on the Playa.