Women of Mardi Gras: New Louisiana State Museum exhibit tracks female krewes back to 1896

A Louisiana State Museum exhibition that opens Friday (Feb. 10) will commemorate the centennial of New Orleans' oldest surviving women's Mardi Gras parade krewe and the evolution of women's krewes from the 1890s to the present.

The Krewe of Iris, which was formed in 1917, and the krewes of Muses and Nyx provided display material and helped financially with the exhibit, called "Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival," said Wayne Phillips, the museum's curator of carnival collections.

The exhibit runs through December 2018 at the Presbytere.

Museum artifacts on display include a photo of the first queen of the first women's krewe, called Les Mysterieuses (lay mis-TEHR-ee-UHZ), which held leap year balls in 1896 and 1900.

A new group has taken the name, and gave a ball in late December, billing it as the third Les Mysterieuses ball, Phillips said.

He said a number of groups, many of them very short-lived, sprang up in the first two decades of the 20th century.

"The late 1800s and early 1900s were a very active time for ladies' social clubs, many of which embraced the fight for suffrage," he said.

World War I may have killed some of the groups, he said. "Everything ground to a halt Mardi-Gras-wise in World War I; a lot of those krewes disappeared after 1916 or 1917," Phillips said.

Iris may have started out as a social club, but almost nothing is known about its early years, he said.

The group held its first ball in 1922, but disbanded in 1929, and some of its members created a new group called Iridis, meaning "rainbow." Iris re-formed about 1938, Phillips said.

It didn't parade until 1959, but wasn't the first women's group to do so.

Men's groups had sponsored every parade until 1941, when the Krewe of Venus put on its first parade.

"The woman who founded Iris also founded Venus," Phillips said. But Iris has been created as a ball-only group, and didn't want to parade. For more than 10 years, he said, Iris founder Aminthe Nungesser was captain of both groups.

Women's groups parading now included Muses, Nyx, Femme Fatale, Shangri-La, and Cleopatra.

The exhibit will include a detailed overview of women's krewe parades, including forgotten groups such as Mittens, the Mystic Maids, Empyreans, and Titanians, Phillips said in a news release.

Items on display come from the museum and a number of lenders. Those include Arnaud's restaurant, which owns the earliest known existing Iris queen's dress, worn in 1941 by Irma Cazenave, wife of Count Arnaud Cazenave.

Rare photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s and ball favors, invitations and dance cards from the early 20th century are among items to be shown. The exhibit is part of the Women of New Orleans: Builders and Rebuilders exhibition initiative of the nonprofit Nola4Women, launched in honor of New Orleans' tricentennial.

- Janet McConnaughey, Associated Press