The Costume and Allegory of Mardi Gras; A Guide to Turning Fantasy Into Reality
On the festivities typical of New Orleans, an eccentric aesthetic and the forgotten creators who conceived of it all.
For centuries, Mardi Gras and its extravagant spirit have defined New Orleans. One of the elements most representative of the city’s golden age (from the mid- to late 19th -century) were allegorical floats, costumes, and a particular aesthetic which accompanied the entire celebration of the carnival. The creations of artists all but unknown today, their genius, and imaginations, came from unexpected places and today deserve a place within the history of art known as the “carnivalesque.”
The festivity of Carnival was introduced by the French during the conquest of Louisiana in the late 17th-century. It’s celebrated even to this day in the days leading up to Lent. One of the traditions of the New Orleans carnival, and its culmination on Mardi Gras (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), was the emergence of Krewes or brotherhoods, in the 19th-century. Krewes were the groups who organized events during the carnival. Every carnival’s Krewes developed their own identities and these generally revolved around a theme inspired by mythology, literature, religion or history. This affected not only the costumes of the participants and the horse-drawn floats, but it seeped even into minor details like invitations and the fans people waved during their presentations.
New Orleans itself then developed a look that revolved around a traditional carnivalesque aesthetic. Some artistic currents of the late 19th-century (like Art Nouveau), always touched with the era’s fascination with the Orient and realms of the fantastic. Until the early 20th-century, the most famous of the New Orleans carnival Krewes were called Rex, Comus, Proteus and Momus, and each had their favorite artists, names that practically nobody knows today, at the time were the celebrated owners of styles like none other. Among them were Jennie Wilde, Charles Briton, Carlotta Bonnecaze, and one of the most admired of his era, the Swedish, Bror Anders Wikstrom. Many others anonymously laid the foundations for these styles, replete with beauty, exoticism and, of course, excess.
One of the most complete records of these artists’ work is the Carnival Collection, part of the collection of the research department at the University of Tulane. The library has digitized about 5,500 costume sketches, allegorical floats, and inspirational guides that offer a journey through the history of the carnival. Many of the drawings – in ink and watercolor – were made as disposable manuals for the production of costumes and floats. Many have holes where they’d been tacked to the workshop walls. The photographic record of the time shows that these ambitious drawings, of course, resulted in rather different things when transported into reality. But the drawings, and their intentions, reveal a magic still surprising today.
A demonstration of imagination and visual exuberance, the works survive as witnesses to all but forgotten talents, an art to remind us of the path leading fantasy back into reality.
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