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Question: Where did New Orleans Mardi Gras float riders’ costumes come from?
When one of the traditional Carnival parades rambles through New Orleans’ streets in the big lead up to Mardi Gras, the folks riding along on the floats toss beads, trinkets and other novelties down toward the crowds below. While the men — and, in recent years, women — who participate have traditionally been among the city’s wealthier citizens, knowing exactly who they are has always been a difficult task.
Why? They’re all in costume.
The krewe-members who climb up onto the dozens of parade floats every year do so with a mask covering their faces, plus what’s typically a satiny suit of pants of a long tunic. So, where exactly do these costumes come from?
While some have pointed out that the costumes — and especially those of Cajun Mardi Gras with their pointed capuchon hats — bear a striking resemble to the ensembles worn by the Ku Klux Klan, there is no known connection, according to local historians and researchers.
The comparison, LSU Libraries assistant curator of manuscripts Melissa Lee Smith said, is one she’s heard often. But it’s best to remember that Carnival celebrations predate the 1866 formation of the KKK, the reputation of which really didn’t develop until the 1910-1920s.
Instead, the origins of Mardi Gras costumes come not from the United States but rather, like Mardi Gras itself, Europe.
New Orleans Mardi Gras costumes have more in common with “those of Nice, France, and Venice, Italy, both cities with longstanding Carnival traditions,” Smith said. “Keep in mind that especially in the early days of New Orleans Carnival, many of the New Orleans costume designs (and the costumes themselves) were manufactured in France.”
As for Cajun Mardi Gras, much of that tradition “is connected to old European customs of begging, which even has connections to Halloween. This medieval tradition of begging often led the participants to dress in costume, and Cajun Mardi Gras celebrants adopted these costume types in their own rural begging rituals,” according to Louisiana State Museum curator of costumes and textiles Wayne Phillips.
The capuchons, Phillips said, have since the 1800s been made by hand out of wire screens and are often painted with colorful features or decorated with exaggerated features.
“Cajun costumes are meant to be comical and colorful and allow the wearer to have fun and get away with gentle mischief,” Phillips said.