Day-glo, neon feathered headdresses, sequined and bedazzled moccasins, slick dance moves, and a musical legacy that marries funk with flash - the Mardi Gras Indian Krewes are fashion as grand event.
New Orleans’ unique take on the traditional Carnival has always been rife with color and chaos, but the city’s famous Indian Krewes take it to the next level. A vibrant patchwork of inventive costuming, stylized rituals, and a musical element that blends Zydeco and Cajun Caribbean with New Orleans soul, the Mardi Gras Indian parades are a uniquely American take on tradition...and truly a sight to be seen.
Today’s New Orleans boasts approximately 38 different tribes, which range in size from a half dozen to several dozen members. These Mardi Gras Indian Krewes are loosely divided into the “Uptown” and the “Downtown” tribes, each boasting colorful names like, the Black Hawk Hunters, the Flaming Arrows, and the Wild Magnolias. The fascinating legacy of the Mardi Gras Indian goes way back – with the first very first Krewes kicking off parades in the inner city more than a century ago.
First originating from the established affinity between the city’s two earliest minority populations and the long standing respect between Native Americans and African Americans – the costuming of the Mardi Gras Indian is also said to have been inspired from what must have been an unforgettable visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans sometime in the 1880s.
Drawing huge crowds of African Americans, the Native portion of Bill’s legendary show served as direct inspiration for following year’s Mardi Gras celebrations, where new Krewes emerged clad in homage to tribal style.
Later, with an influx of Caribbean culture into New Orleans, the costuming took on a more elaborate, vibrant elements – brightly colored feathers, rainbow sequins, rich satins and silks. Contemporary Krewes still make these suits by hand, usually with the help of family and friends. True haute couture, each of these costumes can weight up to a whopping150lbs, and typically cost over $5,000 and endless man-hours to produce.
What makes these creations even more amazing is that no Krewe member ever wears the same suit twice. In fact, custom has dictated a ritualistic burning of the costumes at the end of each Mardi Gras celebration, with these exquisite works literally going up in flames. (Thankfully, today many these incredible, one of a kind pieces are going to museums and collectors... instead of into the bonfire.)
Mardi Gras Indian tradition requires not only vivid, labor-intensive costuming, but also defined roles within the Krewes, as well as a hierarchy between members and a uniquely Indian language and terminology. There’s the “Chief”, who heads each Krewe, a “Spy Boy” who parades out in front of the group during street celebrations, and the “Flag Boy”, who is responsible for flying the Krewe’s colors. There are also “Queens” and “Wild Men” and “Medicine Men”, and so on - a fantastic collection of characters and designations created over the generations.
The result is unbridled, unrestrained unapologetic fashion in true New Orleans style. A celebration of African, Caribbean, and Native cultures, the Mardi Gras Indian is purely American – flashy, fun and vibrantly full of life – an incredible visual display underscored and inspired - by politics, history, and art.