Dames de Perlage co-founder Christine Clouatre estimates that each of the 45 members of the Mardi Gras marching group spends over 200 hours sewing thousands of tiny seed beads onto the Dames' signature corsets and hats each Carnival season.
"As a group we've beaded over two million beads," she said.
At a meeting of the Dames in the Oak Park neighborhood, with just over three weeks to go before Mardi Gras, the members discussed parade safety and etiquette, received eye makeup lessons from a member of the Pussyfooters marching group, consumed slices of king cake, and previewed their intricate torso-hugging bead mosaics, which glittered like rainbow caviar.
This year's theme is "Dames in the Hood," with the members creating representations of New Orleans Streets and neighborhoods.
Rachel Nicolosi illustrated Louisiana Avenue with a map of the state adorned with symbols of her family history. Claire Thomas represented the street where she was born, Chippewa, with samples of flowers and vines typical of Chippewa Indian beadwork. Ashley McLellan illustrated the Hollygrove neighborhood with a lush image of the popular produce market.
Dianne Waller depicted The Spotted Cat nightclub on Frenchmen Street that includes a portrait of her musician husband. Patrice Henry recreated a scene at the corner of Claiborne and St Bernard Avenues, featuring The Circle grocery, a Carnival brass band, and Mardi Gras Indians.
The Dames other co-fonder Julie Lotado, said that Mardi Gras Indians, who have long decorated Carnival costumes with elaborate beadwork, had a role in the beginnings of the marching group.
As Lotado explained, in 2012 she and Clouatre set out to create a marching club that would celebrate some aspect of Carnival culture. Beads, which are used in Mardi Gras parade royalty costumes, Mardi Gras Indian costumes, and as throws, seemed to fit the bill.
At first, Lotado said, the Dames founders considered gluing the beads from plastic necklaces into costume mosaics - as other costumers have done. But they craved something more. So, as Lotado put it, "we went the whole, like, seed bead Mardi Gras Indian route."
The Dames found a few experienced Mardi Gras Indian beaders to help them learn the intricacies of the art form and soon they were on their way, Lotado said. Over time, they've discovered that everyone has their own technique.
"It's kind of like, you know, how you cook your red beans," she said. "Everybody's got a different way to do it."
In 2013, the first year the group marched, they had no theme, so members made whatever design they chose. Lotado said that she composed a colorful sugar skull a la The Day of the Dead.
The second year, the group chose the theme "Ain't Der No More" and produced deigns that reflected beloved bygone businesses. In 2015 the Dames de Perlage celebrated their devotion to The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, with beadwork depicting their favorite aspects of the springtime music fest.
The Dames do not practice choreographed dances like other marching clubs; they see themselves as marching canvases. The public may peruse their most recent masterpieces in the Freret parade at 2:30, Jan. 30; the King Arthur parade at 1 on Jan 31; the Tucks parade at noon of Feb. 6 and the Thoth parade at noon on Feb. 7.