What does it mean to costume? It depends on where you ask the question.
Anywhere else, costuming might be a novelty to look forward to once, maybe twice, a year, an activity reserved for Halloween and the occasional themed party. Anywhere else, costuming is an escape into the likeness of some other person, character, or creature, one completely separate from who you are in everyday life. Anywhere else, “costume” is a noun and not a verb.
Anywhere else, of course, but New Orleans.
Here, costumes can be all that, but they are also much more. The costumes of the Crescent City are windows: they are representations and exaggerations of our truest selves. They are our spirits, our experiences, our desires, and our talents on full display. Those who take to the streets do so to celebrate who and what they are, and even when the costume comes off, the euphoric feeling remains.
A large part of the city’s costume culture is the making. Much of what you’ll see on the streets of New Orleans–for Mardi Gras, Pride, Gay Easter, or any regular afternoon–are not the sorts of costumes bought off the rack at a national chain or ordered conveniently with one click. For most, costumes are the results of hours of planning and creating, with the many costume and accessory shops in the city providing the pieces and materials required to bring a unique vision to life.
In New Orleans, costuming and masking are community. It’s culture. Put simply, it’s an art form all its own.
Dating back to the 1800s, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians has a deep and rich history in New Orleans, even if its exact origins are disputed by various sources. No matter how the custom began, it’s impossible not to feel a deep sense of admiration for the ingenuity and craftsmanship demonstrated by each “tribe” when they come marching down the street, dressed in hand-beaded, feather-adorned suits and headdresses, their voices lifted in song.
Their traditional three-piece suits are painstakingly designed, patterned, and brought to life, usually after months (or even a full year) of work. Because of the intense amount of effort, and the tradition’s cultural blending of African and Native American influences, the finished product is regarded as more than just a costume.
In a 2017 interview with Curbed, Chief Kevin Doucet of the Flaming Arrows tribe explained that, whatever the inspiration for a masker’s suit, the result is always deeply personal to the wearer: “A lot of Indians sew from a vision or a dream. My suits represent people’s pain.”
Historically, each tribe would debut new suits on Mardi Gras day and retire them after Super Sunday, a city-wide celebration and parade of tribes that lands on the third Sunday of March every year. Thus, the process would begin again. The Super Sunday tradition is still intact, but it’s no longer uncommon to see a tribe taking to the streets outside of the regular Carnival season.
At the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Mardi Gras Indians are regular performers and demonstrators, and they invite the community to admire their delicate artistry while learning about their culture and customs. Meanwhile, the Backstreet Cultural Museum offers visitors the opportunity to learn more about Mardi Gras Indians (and much more) all year long.
There was a time when local journalist and editor Melanie Spencer thought her love for champagne, French-Louisiana history, 18th-century glamor, and meticulously extravagant crafts were simply too niche to be shared by anyone else. Then, during Mardi Gras in 2016, she saw the Merry Antoinettes parading by. She knew immediately she’d found her people.
Since then, Spencer has delighted in the months of research, design, and trial and error required to create just one of her Merry costumes, which blend historically-accurate pieces with fantastical and pop-culture influences.
These one-of-a-kind ensembles are not relegated to the costume closet year-round, either. Like many other Krewes in the city, the Merry Antoinettes do not limit their costuming to the Carnival season, instead finding opportunities throughout the year to don their wigs for a night of glitter-fueled glee, often in support of local nonprofits like The Link Stryjewski Foundation and Project Lazarus. It’s a lot of work, but Spencer says it’s incredibly rewarding.
“Seeing it all come together in the final look, especially if it comes out the way I envisioned it, is of course amazing, but what I most love is coming up with the vision,” says Spencer. “I also really love it when someone else loves what I’ve created and I see the delight in their eyes and a big smile. It’s so uplifting to share in a joyful moment of connection like that with another person.”
Spencer elaborates that she has not just found community within the Merrys, but on a broader scale, too. The city itself, with its limitless well of imagination, creativity, and generosity, has fostered a sort of costume-centered subculture that allows creatives to flourish.
“There have been so many times I put a call out on social for a random costume element and got immediate offers from countless friends and acquaintances that had it and were willing to let me borrow it,” she says. “I’ve answered many a request like that myself. Because we have so many opportunities to costume in New Orleans, and due to costuming being such a big part of the culture here, lending and borrowing is easy and becomes another fun way to engage.”
Spencer says the opportunity to play a role while in costume can lead to a kind of catharsis, and that at times, she has even felt “like real life is the part for which we are playing dress up, and costuming is the sparkly, beautiful reality.” But, while costuming has provided an escape from the obligations of regular life, the goal has never been to fully escape the person she is every day. Rather, Spencer says the goal is to feed and inspire that person.
“I often experience a sense of becoming more myself as an artist with each new iteration, because when I design and create my own costume, for a brief moment in time, I get to not only be that artist within, but also—I get to be the art.”