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My New Orleans: Curator Wayne Phillips

Louisiana State Museum curator Wayne Phillips’ Mardi Gras must-dos

In his dual role as the Louisiana State Museum's curator of costumes and textiles and curator of Carnival collections, Wayne Phillips is well versed in all things Mardi Gras. In addition to preserving Fat Tuesday finery, Phillips also oversees the LSM's permanent ‘‘Mardi Gras: It's Carnival Time in Louisiana’’ exhibit at Presblytère.

Do you costume during Carnival?

I do sometimes, though, as a Carnival historian, Mardi Gras is in some ways a working holiday for me. I prefer to leave my view unobstructed, and I try to keep my wits about me Mardi Gras Day so I can study what everybody else is wearing.

Mardi Gras Day 1912
Masking on Mardi Gras Day 1912 (©LSM)

Why should Mardi Gras-goers mask?

You really don’t get the full experience of Carnival unless you mask. The idea of Mardi Gras Day, going back hundreds of years, was that it was the last day to get out all of your inhibitions and mischief before you gave it all up for Lent. You can’t experience the fullness of this day when mischief is allowed unless you are disguised. That was the point of wearing a costume, to hide your identity so that your misbehavior would be tolerated and, in fact, endorsed and encouraged. I think that’s a really key element to Mardi Gras.

Where would you send folks searching for a fun get-up?

Really the best costumes are the ones made at home. But for visitors there are lots of opportunities for last-minute Carnival shopping. If you don’t wear a full costume, you at least need to wear a mask; the core of any Mardi Gras costume is hiding your face. The weekend before Mardi Gras is the French Market Mask Market along Dutch Alley. Maskmakers from all over the country set up booths, and you’ll find hundreds of masks. Over the years maskmaking has turned into such an extraordinary art form, and I just love to see the different materials and media that are used—everything from stainless-steel forks and spoons to leather and very expensive glass beads and rare feathers and silks and velvets and all kinds of amazing materials ... even simple materials like plastic and plaster. There are also a great variety of prices available there as well.

Louisiana State Museum's seahorse costume
The Louisiana State Museum's seahorse costume (©LSM)

What is the most memorable costume you’ve seen over the years?

I came to Mardi Gras as an adult for the first time during college and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the costumes. I saw this giant pair of seahorses walking the streets. They were these beautiful aqua-blue and silver seahorses that must have been 8- or 9-ft.-tall. So I took lots of pictures of these seahorses and the Poseidon figure that marched with them. Later I moved to New Orleans and, in 1994, started working at the museum, where I discovered those two costumes were already in the collection. Now I’m responsible for them!

What’s your favorite thing among the museum’s Carnival holdings?

Probably the most important costume we have was that worn by Rex, the King of Carnival, in 1881. It’s certainly the earliest king’s costume we have, an Arabian-style robe made of silk, velvet and glass stones. To have one that early, along with the helmet he wore, is an extraordinary rarity. What’s really amazing about that particular costume is that it was not acquired by the Louisiana State Museum until 1978; so that costume was in the family for almost 100 years before it came to us. It’s just an amazing costume and a really extraordinary survival of the early years of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Bourbon Street awards
A good place to spot Mardi Gras creativity is the Bourbon Street Awards (©Doug Brantley)

Which Carnival krewes do you consider the most creative?

The gay krewes are where you’re going to see the most flamboyant and creative costumes. The highlight of my Mardi Gras Day is the Bourbon Street Awards. I do not miss the awards. It’s just this moment when people who have made these creations—that sometimes tower five or 10 feet over their heads—finally have the opportunity to show them off. So there’s this great sense of pride and lack of inhibition. You can tell that some have taken months and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to put together. That is a moment I look forward to every year.

Name your top three must-see parades.

Rex is a must-see, the daytime parade most krewes have looked to for a model of beauty and style. The way Rex continues to pull subjects from literature, mythology and history and use colorful figures puts it at the top of the list. And then the krewe of Orpheus, I think, has really taken up the mantle of Rex and modernized it a bit. Orpheus really is an old-style parade. It’s a super-krewe with super-sized floats and super-sized numbers of people riding them, but they really do model themselves after the old-line krewes. And since the element of satire has always been an important part of Mardi Gras, I try to catch the Knights of Chaos or Krewe d’Etat. Laughter and humor is a big part of Mardi Gras—and it should be.