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  • "If Ever I Cease to Love":The Pageantry of Carnival Costume Designs
  • Kristine Somerville

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Walter Granville Smith, Carnival Reveler, watercolor, 1894, The Historic New Orleans Collection

"If ever I cease to love,may cows lay eggsand fish grow legs.If ever I cease to love."

—Mardi Gras official anthem from the burlesque show Blue Beard [End Page 97]

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H. C. Warren, Mystic King's Costume Sketch, ink and watercolor, 1937, The Historic New Orleans Collection

From 1870 until the early 1900s, New Orleans's Carnival reached a peak of artistry and grandeur. The balls and parades of the golden era were well documented in the city's newspapers and magazines. In 1881 the pageant "Arabian Nights Tales" was lavished with praise in a special edition of New [End Page 98]


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Female Jester, 1935, The Historic New Orleans Collection


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Ceneilla Bower Alexander, Shepherd, ink and watercolor, 1900, The Historic New Orleans Collection

[End Page 99]


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Dodo, pencil and watercolor, between 1880 and 1882, The Historic New Orleans Collection


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Ceneilla Bower Alexander, A Lizard Coachman, ink and watercolor, 1915, The Historic New Orleans Collection

[End Page 100]


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A Caucus Race, gouache, between 1880 and 1882, The Historic New Orleans Collection

Orleans Carnival: "The costumes were the finest materials; the silks, satins, lace of such excellent quality they would have borne comparison with the costume of the fairest lady in the land." Descriptions of the season's productions became so superlative that Carnival historian Perry Young declared language ill equipped for the task: trying to capture these spectacles in mere words "made the loftiest adjectives run pale."

Golden-era costumes and floats were the centerpieces of the season's balls and street pageants, which began two weeks before Fat Tuesday and culminated with Mardi Gras—the feast before the fast. During Carnival, there was one major parade a day, with the largest and most elaborate processions taking place over the last five days. Competition among the four major krewes—Comus, Rex, Momus and Proteus—was spirited. Each year, these social organizations tried to produce a spectacle more memorable than the year before by re-creating scenes from classical and world mythology, literature, history and religion. Some concepts were pure invention. The titles of the parades and ball tableaux included "The Legend of Faust," "Destruction of Atlantis," "The Travels of Marco Polo," "Myths and Legends of the North American Indians," "The World of Audubon" and "Tales from Chaucer." During the golden era, over a hundred costumes were designed for the "cast," who rode on more than twenty of the krewe's floats. As they proceeded through the narrow streets of the French Quarter, they threw beads and trinkets to the revelers who lined the sidewalks, crowded the balconies and filled business doorways costumed in their own outlandish creations.

For fourteen years, beginning in the early 1870s, the krewes turned to Swedish lithographer Charles Briton for his unique sense of design. After Reconstruction these social organizations had the wealth to create the [End Page 101] opulent visions that came from his drawing board. One of his best-known series was for the Mistick Krewe of Comus's "The Missing Links to Darwin's Origins of Species" parade in 1873, which is remembered as the first to use satire and political commentary. There were no floats, only men parading in papier-mâché costumes depicting notable figures related to the Civil War and Louisiana politics. Portrayals of Ulysses S. Grant, Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth and Charles Darwin were mischievous and witty.


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Master of Transportation by Sea, gouache and gold ink, between 1880 and 1882, The Historic New Orleans Collection

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Like Briton, Léda Hincks Plauché designed for the four major krewes. Born to a wealthy Creole family, she grew up in an Esplanade Avenue mansion. She became enchanted with Carnival when she made her first visit...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 97-108
Launched on MUSE
2012-05-03
Open Access
No
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