The tradition of costuming for Mardi Gras may be more American than it seems. Errol Laborde traced Mardi Gras costuming back to the influence of European immigrants living in Philadelphia in the 1700s. These people brought costumed revelry to their new home in America because of the seasonal Mumming tradition in Europe in which costumed actors would put on plays and make a raucous noise during Christmas and New Years at feasts; mummery began in the Medieval ages.
Laborde explains how these celebrations found their way down to New Orleans in his book entitled Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival, now the scene switches to Mobile, Alabama, the town that we are told is responsible for New Orleans' Mardi Gras parading tradition.
"It was there on New Year's eve in 1831, a group of men, including a one-eyed reveler named Michael Krafft, were about to step into history. During their dinner at a Mobile restaurant, Krafft and his group clanged metal objects and paraded about town. Krafft was from Philadelphia, and would have been very familiar with a tradition of parading and hell-raising on New Year's day. In his own way, he brought Mummery to Mobile, where it would metamorphose into a group called the Cowbellians. Gradually, their march would be institutionalized and shifted to coincide with the French celebration of Mardi Gras. The history of celebrations is that of one culture building on another. That's what was happening as the American Carnival evolved," continues Laborde.
In the beginning, Mardi Gras in New Orleans was strictly for the elite class; they had amazing balls, but very small parades. The parade-centric citizens of Mobile came to New Orleans in 1857 and helped establish the Mistick Krewe of Comus, which began the tradition of lavish parades. In New Orleans, the Philadelphia influence would be felt in many ways. Fifteen years after the first Comus parade, Mardi Gras would be crystallized as a major celebration in New Orleans by the founding of the Rex organization, in 1872. Two of the founders were from Philadelphia. Rex was founded primarily as a cure for Reconstruction and to coordinate into one of the miscellaneous groups that had been parading on Mardi Gras, states Laborde.
Costumes became the true king of Carnival. Parades would be filled with amazing custom-made costumes that were far more impressive than the simple satin suits of most riders today. Author Henri Schindler describes these magnificent early Mardi Gras costumes in his 2002 book from the Mardi Gras Treasures series entitled Costume Designs of the Golden Age. The carnival season culminated with Mardi Gras, which brought forth the greatest parade of costumes and masks. There was regalia from every nation and epoch, an array of grotesque, quizzical, diabolical, horrible, strange masks, and disguises, of demigods and demibeasts, apes and man-bats from the moon, joined by mermaids and Punichinellos, by satyrs prancing with monks, and savages dancing with shepherd girls and nuns, writes Schindler. Those costumes inspired the on-lookers of parades to costumes themselves, a tradition that is still practiced today.
"Beginning in early childhood, natives of New Orleans were introduced to the magic of masks and costumes. Each generation brought new participants and fresh disguises to the festival, but the joyous spirit of Carnival went unchanged,"says Schindler.
Costumes were such a fixture of parades because the floats, being pulled by animals, could not hold as many riders as they do today. Tulane University has the largest paper Carnival collection in the world with over 5,600 float and costume designs along with other objects like ball invitations and dance cards, all of which have been scanned and are available for viewing online at Larc.tulane.edu/exhibits/carnival for anyone who is interested in seeing them.
Leon Miller, head of Tulane's Louisiana Research Collection, explains why these costumes, floats, and their original conceptual designs donated to the collection by the krewes were so much more artistic than they are today, "The designs are beautiful, wonderful things," says Miller. "They're original works of art in their own right. The original costumes were made in Paris; they started making costumes in New Orleans after the 1880s. In the 1880s and 90s, you would have maybe one or two people on a float, now it's quite different. It used to be about the float, now it's about the riders. I think the costume designs from the 1873 Comus parade [are the most interesting]; they used the idea of Darwin's 'missing links' theory as a way to satirize current politics."
"It was during Reconstruction so feelings about the war were very high, and you would have images of General Ben Butler, who ran New Orleans during the Occupation; there were rumors he stole silver, so he was portrayed as a giant hyena carrying a giant silver spoon. Ulysses S. Grant was portrayed as a tobacco grub because he was famous for smoking big cigars. The costumes from this parade are among the most bizarre, they're almost otherworldly. You'd have people portrayed as undersea creatures like anemones or sea urchins, extremely creative. They just don't do that kind of thing anymore."
The themes of parades range wildly in both Louisiana, American and Ancient history as well as mythology. The 1869 Comus parade was a salute to the five senses. Parades were planned by beautiful water color or pen-and-ink float design pictures that included costumed figures on the floats. These historical pieces are more than just directions for how to make a costume according to Miller.
"[To me] they really represent the city. The wonderful Carnival collection we have online is a way to act as an ambassador from New Orleans to the world because there are so many amazing, beautiful, and unique [aspects of] New Orleans. Something that's probably important for people to know is that we're open to everyone. We're a real cultural resource; everyone is welcome to use us," emphasizes Miller.
Costuming is not just traditional, it's the law. A 2012 law was passed in Jefferson Parish that fines riders if they aren't in costumes and masks. The law reads: (a) "No participant of a Carnival/Mardi Gras float parade shall ride in public view unless that person is constantly costumed and masked as to disguise his or her facial characteristics. Participants with painted faces as a disguise shall be considered as masked. This provision shall not apply to the king, queen, captain, officers, maids, dukes, pages, attendants or special guest celebrities." However, most riders and watchers fully enjoy being in costume as much as they can, and would not face this law's ire.
Cynthia Reece McCaffety writes in Kerri McCaffety's photo book Masking and Madness, "The catalyst [of Mardi Gras] is the costumes. A kind of magic happens when people dress up. Costumes break down the barriers that people create to simplify their interactions with other people. It provides the wearers with a theatrical visage, recasting them in the roles of performer. In the process, the spectators open up and feel free to interact with the entertainer without being considered aggressive." Costuming was done by people of all races, genders, and statuses; it was not uncommon in the 1800s for people to dress as the opposite gender and/or race. The progenitors of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club began as The Tramps. They wore straw hats and the King carried a banana stalk scepter. They adopted the African tribal theme after a performance of the 1913 film The Zulu King.
Mardi Gras costuming started from European mummery, traveled to the New World for winter celebrations, and came down south for Mardi Gras. Perry Young writes in The Mistick Krewe: Chronicles of Comus and His Kin, "The seeds sown by Michael Krafft have persisted. His mystic progeny are legion." Costuming may not be the longest Mardi Gras tradition, but it is certainly the most creative and fun.