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NOLA History: Krewe du Vieux

One of the city’s bawdier krewes has a history tied to the New Orleans arts scene.

Krewe du Vieux
Krewe du Vieux rolls from the Marigny to the French Quarter on Saturday, February 8, 2020. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Anyone who’s experienced Carnival Season in New Orleans will probably have his or her favorite Mardi Gras parade, a preference that is shaped by any number of factors, including special memories and particular traditions: grabbing a shoe at Muses, dancing under the interstate during Zulu, spotting the celebrity king of Bacchus. But there’s only a few parades that signal the start of the season, and Krewe du Vieux is among them.

While Krewe du Vieux (full name: Krewe du Vieux Carré) is significantly younger than some of the other famous krewes and parades, it has a proud and fascinating history. To understand Krewe du Vieux, one has to take a look back at the krewe from which they emerged—specifically, the Krewe of Clones—who set the precedent for the avant garde, provocative, and generally politically incorrect worldview that shapes Krewe du Vieux today.

Krewe du Vieux History

The Krewe of Clones were based out of the Contemporary Arts Center and formed as a krewe in 1978, just two years after the center opened. Known as an “Art Parade,” the clones engaged in political and social satire, including a generally irreverent attitude to the “serious” traditions of Mardi Gras—for example, their “kings and queens” included deceased celebrities such as Playboy playmate and actress Jayne Mansfield (a 1950s and 60s mashup of Kim Kardashian and the late Anna Nicole Smith) and Elvis Presley, as well as Ken and Barbie.

Due to their affiliation with the Contemporary Arts Center, the Krewe of Clones was, unsurprisingly, made up of a great number of artists, and Mardi Gras provided them with a large, moveable platform (floats) plus a ready-made audience. That artists were drawn to the pageantry of Mardi Gras is to be expected—the floats that make up the bulk of many parades are oftentimes elaborate sculptures, and the curation inherent in shaping the “look” of a parade is akin to coordinating a multi-artist exhibition.

If you wanted to see where the playful nature of Mardi Gras meets its offbeat extension, you wanted to see Krewe of Clones.

Armed with innovative and shocking visual culture, Krewe of Clones quickly garnered active and enthusiastic crowd each year; by 1985, they’d grown to 30 “sub-krewes” and 1,500 marchers. In fewer than 10 years of their existence, they’d become one of Carnival season’s prime (and definitely bawdiest) attractions. If you wanted to see where the playful nature of Mardi Gras meets its offbeat extension, you wanted to see Krewe of Clones.

As is often the case when artists and artistic projects move from the edges to popular “mainstream” attention, there were divergent views about the future, form, and content of the Krewe of Clones. After members tried to impose “rules designed to create a respectable” Uptown parade, Craig “Spoons” Johnson of the Krewe of Underwear and Don Marshall of Le Petite Theatre du Vieux Carré got together and made the decision to create a new parading krewe.

This moment led to what we know today as Krewe du Vieux, a group that channels the spirit of the Clones: the mocking of local and national politicians, the employment of racy visual rhetoric designed to draw visceral reaction (from laughter to disgust) from onlookers, and a deep commitment to the revelry that defines one of the essential threads of this city’s cloth.

Big Freedia at the 2016 Krewe du Vieux parade. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

In the 31 years since Krewe du Vieux came into existence, there have been a number of significant moments in their history: in 1992, when the Krewe established Le Monde du Merde (translate this one yourself), their very own “scandal sheet” newspaper; in 1999, when Pierre McGraw, captain of the Knights of Mondu, developed a template for a float that could make its way easiest through the narrower streets and “pirate’s alleys” of the French Quarter; and in 2006, when the Krewe drew enormous crowds as locals and tourists alike celebrated the fact that Mardi Gras was very alive and kicking nine months after Hurricane Katrina. The theme that year was “C’est Levee,” and according to all those who were there, it was one of those classic New Orleans moments. The list goes on: in 2007, the krewe followed up their attention to post-Katrina recovery by naming local author Chris Rose as that year’s royalty; in 2010, Krewe du Vieux grew to almost 1,000 members. Since then, it has continued to be one of the true markers of the connection between Mardi Gras’ rich past and its exciting future.

Whether in its earlier iteration as Krewe du Clones or as the contemporary version of Krewe du Vieux, the spirit of Mardi Gras—colorful, cheeky, loud, and most importantly, letting us know that Mardi Gras is on its way—is ingrained in this parade, one of the first of the season.

Editor’s Note: Catch the Krewe du Vieux parade on Saturday, February 16 starting at 6:30 p.m. in the French Quarter—more information including the parade route is available here

Christopher Garland lives in the Lower Garden District, where he enjoys evening strolls, happy-hour beer, and close proximity to the basketball court at the corner of Magazine and Napoleon. An Assistant Professor of Writing, Christopher reads and writes for work and pleasure. Find him on Instagram, @cjgarland12.

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