[Photo by Tammie Quintana]

Labors of Love Behind NOLA's Extravagant Mardi Gras Costumes

07:00 February 02, 2024
By: Brooke Adams

Crafting Carnival Magic

For many outside of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a time for revelry, parades, and family get-togethers. However, beyond the beads and the parades in the Crescent City, there exists a unique tradition that truly captures the essence of Mardi Gras—the art of crafting one's own Mardi Gras costume.

The extravagant Mardi Gras costumes of New Orleans are not just pieces of clothing, they are expressions of love for the city, its culture, and the unique spirit that defines Mardi Gras. The labor of love involved in creating these costumes transforms the celebration into a deeply personal and enriching experience for those who choose to embark on this creative journey.

In the heart of the Crescent City, where creativity knows no bounds, residents take pride in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary by dedicating hours, passion, and boundless creativity to fashioning elaborate ensembles that mirror the soul of the city itself. But why do people commit to such a labor-intensive and expensive hobby?

[Photo Courtesy of Romero]

"New Orleans has a vibrant culture unlike any other. I think about other places where ritual and ceremonial costumes are part of people's heritage, and outside of the Native peoples, that just doesn't exist in America. And, yet, New Orleans' culture is just as rich and complex," said Basqo Bim, a Colombian-American multidisciplinary artist known for his intricate masks and fantastical costumes. Basqo is an ager/dyer/fabricator and costumer in the film industry. He is also a member of IATSE 478, the Front, and Colectiva Manos (a newly founded Latin collective). Bim's work encapsulates and is an example of the essence of the Mardi Gras extravagance.

Mardi Gras' costume culture takes costumes and masks that usually hide our identity, and, instead, offers a new way to express ourselves. Seeing the extravagant costumes, Bim was reminded of his obsession with the idea of anonymity. The goal of a Mardi Gras costume isn't to hide your identity, and, yet, the wearer is often still anonymous. "I love it when I walk down the street in one of my masks and people stop and take pictures," said Bim. "But they are seeing the costume, the mask—not me. I love that anonymity. Every person out there gets to evolve into whatever they want to present as. And that presentation is accepted and celebrated."

His journey into the world of Mardi Gras began with a perception common to many outsiders—the notion that it was merely a day of parades on Bourbon Street. However, as Bim immersed himself in Mardi Gras day festivities, his eyes were opened to a world of creative expression that went far beyond the clichés.

[Photo by Akasha Rabut]

Bim recalls the awe-inspiring moments when friends would gather to "get ready," armed with bags filled with costume pieces. The streets, once familiar, were now adorned with people decked out in costumes so extravagant that they became unrecognizable. This transformation excited the artist in Bim, and he found himself particularly drawn to the masks worn in traditional costumes, with a special admiration for Big Chief Tootie Montana, whose influence elevated the masking culture to an art form focused on pageantry and aesthetics.

Like many Mardi Gras masks, Bim's masks are larger than life, intricately detailed, and fantastically whimsical. His creations feel playful and otherworldly. While his artwork belongs in museums, Bim truly believes in wearing these pieces in the real world. What reason do so many people dedicate hours to make these costumes? Why should they, or anyone for that matter, care about making their own costumes?

"I care a lot about not just taking from the world, but finding ways to contribute as well," Bim said. "The fun of Mardi Gras day is seeing everyone out there expressing themselves. Showing the world whatever version of themselves they want to be that day. When we also make our own costumes and participate, we are helping to contribute to what makes Mardi Gras special. We aren't just taking and observing.

[Photo by Michael Santiago Cintron]

Don't be worried if you are overwhelmed and feel like you don't know where to start. Bim admits to having felt the same way. Everyone can feel out of their league when they look at the best of the best. Bim still encourages everyone to try.

He commented, "A lot of people say, 'I'm no artist, I can barely draw stick figures.' But I explain that you don't need to be an artist to start making your own costumes or masks. Take a good look at the costumes you admire, and you start to see the parts that make the whole. You don't need to spend a bunch of money either. Go to Michaels, get yourself a glue gun and some craft supplies. Go to a thrift store and get some clothes to go with it. It doesn't have to be difficult to get started. Even the simple costumes are still worth it."

As we witness the streets of New Orleans come alive with a riot of colors and a sea of fantastical creations, let us recognize and celebrate the immense passion and dedication that underlie each stitch, sequin, and feather, all of which make Mardi Gras in the Big Easy an unrivaled spectacle of artistic expression and communal celebration.

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