Explore New Orleans

The Art of Mardi Gras Masking

A look beneath the feathers and face paint at New Orleans’ costuming culture—and how you can join in the fun.

The earliest known account of Carnival costuming in New Orleans is nearly 300 years old. It was written by Marc-Antoine Caillot, a clerk for the Company of the Indies in Louisiana. His account describes a masquerade on Lundi Gras—the day before Fat Tuesday—in 1730 on the outskirts of the colonial Crescent City.

As Caillot tells the tale, he was the one to have the idea of masquerading. There had been tension between the French and the Tunica and Natchez, whose land they were occupying, and recent raids had left the colonists weary. The Frenchmen in New Orleans were also feeling homesick. It was, after all, what Caillot called “the Fat days”—the Carnival season during which many Catholics, especially those in 18th-century France, indulged themselves in preparation for Lenten fasting. So, in an attempt to lighten his people’s spirits and reconnect with their far-away home country, Calliot proposed that the colonists go masking.

Mardi Gras Indian suit, New Orleans
Intricate bead work is a signature of Mardi Gras Indian costumes. (©Shawn Fink)

But New Orleans circa 1730 wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. It was more like half a square mile of shoddily built huts in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp. In his manuscript, Caillot writes that his friends didn’t want to mask; how were they supposed to find costumes? But Caillot persevered and threw something together. When Caillot, disguised as a shepherdess, called on his friends, they didn’t even recognize him. They were so impressed they decided to join in. And so, Caillot and 10 of his friends got dressed up, hired an escort of French soldiers to play music, ordered slaves light the way with torches and paraded from Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square) to Bayou Saint Jean (Bayou St. John).

Just like that, a mere 12 years after the city was founded—and nearly 200 years before the first written reference to Halloween costuming in North America—New Orleans’ costume culture was born.

Carnival costume designs, Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans
It's Carnival Time in Louisiana" exhibit. (©Shawn Fink)

In 21st-century New Orleans, Carnival costuming is alive and well. Members of Mardi Gras krewes—the groups who put on large parades like Endymion and Rex—generally wear costumes based on European Carnival traditions: large, colorful smocks, white gloves and masks that cover their faces. Krewe royalty often wear wigs similar to those worn by 18th-century French aristocracy. Mardi Gras Indians, participants in a centuries-old tradition rooted in the connections between enslaved Africans and the Native people of Southern Louisiana, wear the intricately beaded-and-feathered suits they spend all year crafting by hand. Some celebrants commission elaborate costumes from local artisans, or rent them from local shops such as Southern Costume Company and Carl Mack Presents, which have massive warehouses and professional costumers on hand to help.

But most people who costume during Carnival—whether they be locals or tourists—follow in Caillot’s footsteps, and put costumes together themselves. In the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, small costume and makeup shops hire extra staff and extend hours to meet the increased demand for face paint, colorful wigs, spirit gum and glitter.

New Orleans Red Beans Parade
Wigs are every bit as important as wardrobe in New Orleans' costume culture. (©Shawn Fink)

Interested in giving it a go and costuming like a New Orleanian? Here’s where you can find what you need to fit in with the fancy folk on Frenchmen Street on Mardi Gras Day.

Rental and Custom Costumes

Whether you want to accessorize with a hand-beaded mask, don traditional gowns and wigs like members of the big Mardi Gras krewes, do your Carnival second line in a Brazilian samba-style backpiece or wear a one-of-a-kind paper mache’ octopus headpiece, these large local costumers have what you need. And, on the off chance they don’t already, their tailors and artists can create a custom costume just for you!

Carl Mack Presents

Carl Mack Presents is one of New Orleans’ oldest and largest event production agencies. Over the 30 plus years it’s been in business, Carl Mack has built a huge collection of unique rental costumes, including an assortment of authentic, hand-beaded Mardi Gras Indian suits. In fact, the collection is so large that the shop recently had to move to a larger location to be able to fit it all.

Carl Mack Presents, New Orleans Mardi Gras
A vast selection of costumes on floor-to-ceiling racks can be found at Carl Mack Presents. (©Shawn Fink)

Southern Costume Company

Southern Costume Company is the only Hollywood-style costumer in New Orleans’ Central Business District. You’ve probably seen its costumes in locally filmed movies, such as 12 Years a Slave and Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter. The 9,000-sq.-ft. facility holds every type of costume imaginable, from Marie Antoinette-style hoop skirts and powdered wigs to robot headpieces with working lights. Southern Costume is a great option for anyone who wants to dress to impress on Fat Tuesday.

Southern Costume Company, New Orleans
A wall of shoes, framed by the many aisles of costumes, at the Southern Costume Company. (©Shawn Fink)

Costume and Makeup Shops

Head to these shops for costuming must-haves, such as boas, wigs, tutus and leotards, as well complete costumes. These stores are also the place to go for glitter, face and body paints and the specially made products that help you take it all off after.

Uptown Costume & Dancewear

Don’t let the small size of this shop fool you; Uptown Costume is full of anything might need to put together your Carnival costume. Just a couple blocks off the Uptown parade route, this local favorite shop is packed during Mardi Gras season, so don’t be surprised if there’s a line just to get into the store. Don’t worry, it moves fast—they hire additional staffers and open extra registers for the weeks before the big day.

Vieux Carré Hair Shop

Vieux Carré Hair Shop’s roots go back all the way to 1877, when Eugenie Saussaye began making hairpieces for the French Opera House in the Vieux Carré. Since then, the shop has moved Uptown and expanded its products to include theatrical wigs and makeup, but it’s still owned and run by the same family. These fourth- and fifth-generation Saussayes can show you how to use their top-of-the-line Mehron face and body paints to really shine on Mardi Gras morning.

Fifi Mahony’s

It’s often difficult to find high-quality wigs and makeup that line up with alternative aesthetics; you can have neo-punk style or well-made products, not both. That’s why so many New Orleanians head to Fifi’s for wigs and cosmetics. Their wide selection of hairpieces includes run-of-the-mill party wigs as well as elaborate custom up-dos in electric colors, and their makeup selection would excite even Lady Gaga.

Fifi Mahony's, New Orleans
An "Under the Sea" styled wig from Fifi Mahony's in the French Quarter. (©Shawn Fink)

Vintage Clothing Shops

Need a 1980s sequined blouse to complete your parade look? What about a vintage marching band jacket with fancy fringe or an acid-wash jumpsuit? Look no further! These shops specializes in the kind of hip, secondhand clothes that make for chic Carnival outfits. But be warned: You’ll come looking for Mardi Gras gear and end up splurging on stylish gems that you’ll incorporate into your wardrobe year round.

Miss Claudia’s Uptown Vintage Clothing and Costumes

This tiny, secondhand store is tucked away on a stretch of Magazine Street that’s full of cool retro furniture shops and hip cafés. You’ll be surprised how many eye-catching pieces Miss Claudia and crew manage to fit into the small, well-organized one-room shop.

Funky Monkey

Stop by this eclectic—and surprisingly affordable—boutique for vintage and contemporary clothes, jewelry and ready-made costumes. As an added bonus (or what New Orleanians call lagniappe), you can grab cutely kitschy trinkets and postcards for you friends back at home.

Funky Monkey boutique, New Orleans
Funky Monkey features an eclectic array of accent pieces to complete any costume. (©Funky Monkey)

Buffalo Exchange

You’re sure to find something fabulous at this popular shop. Its buy/sell/trade program, which allows customers to exchange high-quality used clothing for cash or store credit, ensures that “The Buff” always has fresh, seasonal items on the rack.

Costume Supplies

Whether you’re a professional costumer, making your own Mardi Gras outfit for the first time or looking to jazz up costume pieces you already have, you’ll need supplies. Here’s where to go for everything from hot glue and pompoms to fleur-de-lis appliques and brocade fabric.

Jefferson Variety

This Mardi Gras emporium is worth the trip to Jefferson, a suburb of New Orleans. Inside this plain, squat building you’ll find everything you could possibly need for your Carnival costume. Staffers will pull rolls of fabric and measure out what you need, while you go through the huge assortment of colorful feathers, sequins, decorative trims and beaded patches. You can also buy beads, doubloons and other parade throws to incorporate into your look or bring home as souvenirs.

Broadway Bound Costumes

Generations of New Orleanians relied on Helen Koenig, the city's unofficial glitter goddess, to keep them looking fly for Fat Tuesday. Sadly, Miss Helen passed away in 2016. But the crew at her shop, Broadway Bound Costumes, is upholding her legacy, keeping costumers stocked in gems, glitter, feathers and fabric.

A New Orleans Mardi Gras-goer
Whether you go for full-on glitz or with just a simple mask, costuming is essential to experiencing the true Carnival experience. (©Shawn Fink)