Why we get naked at Mardi Gras: simple economics, says LSU prof

Bourbon Street flashing

A reveler wanders Boubon Street without her top during the 2008 Mardi Gras celebrations. Flashing and getting naked can be explained by economics, says an LSU professor. (Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archive)

Wesley Shrum, a sociologist at LSU, knows why we get naked at Mardi Gras. Well, maybe not you or me, but -- you know -- those people. Flashing for beads makes economic sense.

"It's a deeply conservative ritual that reflects free market economics," Shrum said.

Ok, let's back up for a moment.

At first, the way you got beads was from a float. Fake royalty threw beads to plebeians below.

"You don't have to be a very insightful sociologist to say, I wonder what people dressed like nobles and people on the streets represent," Shrum said. "That represents an upper class and a lower class."

The trinkets tossed to the crowds mirror a feudal economic system. We are peasants. The riders our lords.

"We symbolize our society using these rituals and these celebrations," Shrum said.

In the mid-1970s, a group of nudists started throwing a party on Royal Street. They would flash from a balcony, and encourage people on the streets to do the same.

"That was something that didn't catch on," Shrum said.

What did click, as we all know, was flashing for beads.

"We've developed a ritual that perfectly reflects the ideas of market capitalism," he said. "Beads are the money of Mardi Gras. People understand they are in a bargaining position."

Instead of begging the gentry for generosity on the parade route, on Bourbon Street we witness the invisible hand of capitalism lifting up shirts.

"All of a sudden, people say, 'We can participate. We can get beads without begging,'" he said.

Like any dynamic market system, the exchange of beads on Bourbon Street rewards entrepreneurship.

"Whenever there is a war, like the early 90s in Iraq, and there is a lot of military activity overseas, people do pushups for beads," Shrum said. "There is a pattern that we know, but if you can think of something different you can be an innovator."

Shrum had one more important note to add about his research, particularly in these days when the survival of Louisiana's public universities looks perilous.

"I want to make very clear that no state or public money was ever given to this project," Shrum said about his research on ritual disrobement at Mardi Gras. "It was on my own time."