Mardi Gras Costumes - The History Behind the Revelry

Friday, November 30, 2012
You would be hard pressed to find a bigger celebration in the United States than the one that occurs every week prior to lent in New Orleans. While the celebrations have taken various forms in various states, the New Orleans version is still the one people will travel from far away to be a part of. Mardi Gras costumes are a must for those who want to get into the carnival spirit, and you won't see a more motley assortment of crazy outfits outside of Halloween. For those in the know, this tradition of dressing up for the occasion is called "masking", and it is as much a part of the festivities as beads and floats. Here's a look at the history behind this proud tradition.
Pierre Le Moyne
Like almost everything with strong historical roots in New Orleans, Mardi Gras costumes have strong ties to France. Brought to America by the Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne, the carnival was an instant success, carrying on the masking traditions beloved in Paris at the time. When New Orleans was under French rule in the 1700s, costumed balls were as common as they were in the city that made them so famous. Towards the end of the century, however, the Spanish took control of the territory and put an end to the masked parties, considering them pagan in nature. They remained outlawed until the early 1800s.
The Parades
While Mardi Gras costumes were commonplace as soon as the prohibition on masking was lifted, the organized parades the carnival is so known for today did not begin until 1837. They were short lived, however, not because the authorities sought to ban them, but because they became an easy target for robbery. Bringing the tradition back was left to a group known as the Comus Krewe, which pulled off a complete organization of the carnival in 1857, introducing elaborate parades, decorated floats and characters who wore complete Mardi Gras costumes in addition to the traditional masks. Characters such as King Rex and the Zulu King were introduced and quickly became long term staples of the celebration.
Indians and Tramps
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Mardi Gras costumes and their history knows all about the Indians. While not true Native Americans, but rather individuals often comprising African Americans and various mixed race people dressed as such, they are intended not to mock the original people of the country, but rather shine a light on their plight. The Tramps are just as important to the history, comprised of African Americans in exaggerated blackface in protest of white actors of the time doing the same in movies and on stage. The group, known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, still makes their appearance in blackface today.


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