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Photo: Jack Robinson

A Mardi Gras Tradition Was Liberated

The smell of baking king cakes announces, for some, the impending arrival of Mardi Gras.

For others, it’s the scent of glue guns feverishly at work.

In the months leading up to Fat Tuesday, when New Orleans erupts into a screaming mass of passing floats and thrown beads, costume makers all over the city cut and snip and sew wearable creations beyond the bounds of human imagination.

And there are none more imaginative than those of the city’s gay Carnival krewes.

Towers of feathers, mountains of rhinestones. Crowns and wings and wigs and masks. On the nights of the gay krewes’ Mardi Gras balls, men young and old are transformed into Egyptian gods and French queens, Roman gladiators, American cowboys.

It’s extravagant, flamboyant, larger than life.

Krewe of Armenius
Photo by: Barrett DeLong; Members of the Krewe of Armenius Ball in 1968.
Krewe of Armenius
Photo by: Barrett DeLong; Members of the Krewe of Armenius Ball in 1968.

On its surface, a terrifically bloated take on a Southern tradition.

At its heart, a form of poignant protest.

Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, Carnival krewes operated as segregated displays of power and wealth. They were exclusive, often, to the rich, the white, and the straight.

In 1958, a group of gay men decided to change all that. They formed the Krewe of Yuga.

Yuga’s balls were the first of its kind. They playfully mocked the absurdist aristocratic formalities of the krewes that had closed their doors to them. When the police raided Yuga’s fifth ball, the krewe was done for good. But it wasn’t the end.

Others, resolute, created their own.

Today, there are ten gay Carnival krewes. And none glitter more brightly than Armeinius.

Coming up on its fiftieth anniversary, the krewe is known to host balls that rival the most ostentatious of Broadway musicals (and all are welcome to join).

An audience in tuxedos and drag sits at tables while the pageantry unfolds before them. Atlantis Redivivus. Lilies of the Field. Great Disasters of the Western World. The evening’s theme comes to life, full of wit and humor.

Men wearing costumes big as elephants are led down a stage ramp. Pounds of sequins and satin shine under spotlights. Each elaborate costume stands in defiance of convention, of reality, of gravity.

The music plays.

The people cheer.

And then it ends.

Costumes are returned to their closets, where they will wait until next year’s fête, when the Krewe of Armeinius once again transforms an ordinary ballroom into a royal court, and claims a slice of Mardi Gras history for their own.

Visit New Orleans and start your story with #OneTimeInNOLA.

Jenny is a writer of culture both high and low. Her work has appeared in V Magazine, Lenny Letter, and TIME, to name a few. She first fell in love with New Orleans over buttermilk biscuits and strawberry preserves. She’s been a NOLA regular ever since.

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