Costumes on Parade
There is a party going on right now in the state of Louisiana, known as Carnival. Staring on Epiphany, January 6th, and running through Ash Wednesday, it is a celebration of winter, sandwiched between the two most austere times of the Catholic calendar, Advent and Lent. This time has been set aside to let go and do things that you normally would not, and redemption will be found in the piety of the rest of the year. The party is attended by people far and wide, and to add to the revelers’ feelings of freedom, the tradition of wearing costumes was adopted.
The earliest form of costuming in America revolved around the practice of masking: obscuring the face to retain anonymity. Masked balls, which were an integral part of the Parisian celebration of Mardi Gras, were common in New Orleans under French rule during much of the 1700s. The Spanish outlawed masking, when they came into power in the late 1700s, because they saw the custom as pagan. The prohibition remained in place until 1823, despite Louisiana’s annexation to the United States, in 1803. While the then-governor did permit masking at private functions, like Mardi Gras balls, masking in the streets was not legalized, again, until 1827.
The first organized parade occurred in 1837. However, Mardi Gras in America was established, as we know it today, by the Comus Krewe in 1857. This group organized all the parades, and introduced the concept of a themed parade with decorated floats and characters, in not only masks, but in full costumes. Over the next 40 years, costuming for parades and ball participants became more widespread, and characters like King Rex became a regular feature of each parade. By the middle of the 1900s, full costumes became common for Mardi Gras participants at all levels, though the tradition continues to be called “masking.”
In the city of New Orleans, the floats of the parade go by with members of the Krewes’ courts dressed in some of the most outrageous and ostentatious garments that the world has ever seen. The headdresses are so big that the women cannot actually “wear” them. Rather the headpiece is attached to the float on an elaborate rack, and the woman is strapped to the headpiece. These garments are meant to be the trappings of royalty, even if the reign is temporary.
Meanwhile, in the Louisiana countryside, a different kind of party is going on, known as Courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras run. In a tradition dating back to French medieval times, revelers ride from farm to farm “stealing” food for a large gumbo that will be cooked in the town center, later that day. In times past, the runs were done at night, but now they are part of a day-long celebration, and the riders are lead by men on horseback to designated farms, where chickens await their fate.
The costumes of the participants also have their basis in medieval times. Traditionally, the costumes were made of old clothes in a patchwork style that can still be seen in the mismatched and haphazard styles of today’s participants. These loose and baggy garments made it easy to run, and to ride on horseback, as needed. The conical hat shape and garment fringe were commonplace styles of the nobility, in medieval times, that are maintained to the current day, as the revelers make fun of their gaudily dressed counterparts in the cities.