Regal & Rural
● By Robert Frey
An Account Of South Louisiana’s Mardi Gras Costume Designers
By Shanna Perkins
Mardi Gras comes but once a year, and with it, the rare opportunity to glide into a fairy tale and forget reality. Be it donning a gleaming ensemble or slipping into a suit covered in a kaleidoscope of fringe, revelers of the hedonistic holiday layer themselves in a slight veil of concealment before the decadence and debauchery. And these are the craftsmen who make it possible.
Life is a Ball
Like most Mardi Gras customs, the tradition of the Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras krewes being presented at lavish balls originated in medieval Europe. Today, the grandiose of these events would put the king’s riches to shame. The presentations are a parade of pageantry, with the costumes being labored over for nearly 365 days.
“This is their one chance,” says Mardi Gras ball costume extraordinaire Ted Viator. “There is excitement in the air, and when you get the court on stage in their costumes, it’s surprising what they’ll do. It’s all a matter of entertainment. It’s Mardi Gras – you forget all of your problems and have a good time.”
Viator, who in addition to being a costume maker is a landscaper, laughingly says he doesn’t truly know how he became involved in costume design. But as he flips through pages filled with his previous designs, towering headdresses complete with three pounds of feathers and costumes with so much shine that Liberace would be jealous, it hits him. In high school, Viator was a teacher’s aide for an art teacher who designed the headpieces for a local ball. During class, Viator would help him construct the pieces.
Viator became involved with The Mystic Krewe of Apollo de Lafayette around 1984, and served as the krewe’s captain for many years. Not long after, he began assisting The Krewe of Bonaparte with their costumes. It didn’t take long for the word to get out.
“Krewes just started to call me,” he recalls. “The more you do, the more you learn. It’s kind of an exciting challenge to stay within a budget and to make each costume unique.”
Today, he does the costumes for Apollo and Bonaparte, but also does the headpieces and sets up the scenery for Attakapas. There are also a few select (and lucky) krewes and individuals who Viator designs for. When detailing the costume creating process, it’s always “we.” Everyone who works for or near Viator has a hand in the process.
“First, I draw it by hand,” he says. “Then I have my team plot it on the computer. We have a seamstress who sews the costumes. I decorate them once they’re finished – lots of sequins and colors. Some are more traditional, and some are a little more conceptual and artistic. For the decorating, we use everything – we don’t throw anything away. We rip it apart; we reuse it.”
Viator is the overseer of a compound of warehouses; within them are the parts and pieces of his costumes and designs from the last 30 years. It’s a veritable labyrinth of glitz. Some rooms hold hundreds of rolls of fabric. Others are filled with filing cabinets that when opened spill out sequins, glitter, glistening appliques. Costume rooms, where wigs hang next to oversized angel wings and knee-high boots. Discarded colossal props stand like monuments to honor the themes of previous years.
“This is all my mother’s fault. She used to tell me, ‘you have to make a mess to make something nice,’” Viator says navigating around partially completed 12-foot tall glittering props. “We take what some people might consider junk, and we make it look real good.”
The wonder of Mardi Gras isn’t reserved only for the adults. Children also get their moment to, quite literally, shine. Naomi Maraist has been designing the costumes for the children’s krewe, The Krewe of Versailles, for five years.
“I was the captain of The Krewe of Xanadu for seven years, so I was in charge of coming up with a theme, and I worked with the costume chairperson,” Maraist explains. “And one day, I was asked to sketch for the children’s krewe. I was hesitant at first. I’d done my own costume and my son’s, but I didn’t know if I was creative enough to come up with 40 different costumes. I did it that first year and I was hooked.”
It’s hard to imagine that she ever had an ounce of apprehension toward the task. She talks about velvets and appliques the way an art collector would talk about a Picasso or a Pollock. By Maraist description, trips to the fabric store sound more like trips to Disney World. And she’s never short on inspiration
“I’m always researching and taking pictures of different things that inspire me,” Maraist says tugging at a stray piece of gold trim from the back of her binder of costume sketches. “I have Barbie books, because she had some truly amazing dresses. I have really nice paper doll books that have given me a lot of ideas. When I’m sketching, I see the designs fully complete – the embellishment, the shine – it’s all there.”
Once the theme for coming year’s court is given, Maraist begins sketching day and night. The children are selected and she thoughtfully assigns each child with a costume. Then she spends a few days at the fabric store, poring over colors, appliques, crystals, bead, velvets, trims, shines and sparkles. She makes a kit for each child to take to a seamstress. After their costume is sewn, many people bring their costumes back to Maraist so that she can make the embellishments or the headpieces, “the fun stuff,” as she calls it.
Flipping through her phone’s camera roll and through her binder, its obvious that Maraist’s creativity knows no bounds. Her pictures show costumes inspired by Antarctica, “The Lion King” and various other sources. There are snapshots of her son’s show-stopping LSU Eye of the Tiger embellished train from his year as the King of Versailles. There are images of herself from over the years in costumes she created – a diamond, Elvis, Tina Turner, a Cher-inspired Native American and a Golden Globe award. She makes it look easy, but will quickly tell you it isn’t. But the children’s excitement and her own pride in her culture has kept Maraist’s finger on the glue gun trigger.
“With the kids, you give them a costume and they’re just so excited,” she says. “It’s Mardi Gras. It’s pretend world. But, it’s a big part of our heritage. You either love it or you don’t. And I happen to love it.”
Run For it
And now to the more rural and ruckus side of the Mardi Gras costume coin. The Courir de Mardi Gras also originated in medieval Europe. During the courir, a group rides through town, begging for ingredients for a ceremonial Mardi Gras gumbo. The last ingredient they have to fetch is the chicken, but of course, they have to catch it first. This tradition has its own unique costumes – extravagant…but in their own way.
“A typical costume is the shirt, the mask, the capuchon and the fringe,” says Susana Ortego Guillory of Mardi Gras Creations by Susana in Elton. “With the colors, you can go as bright and as exotic as you’d like. You can also keep them very muted. The process of picking out the fabric and figuring out how to cut the fringe, I can go really odd and different or very neutral. It’s whatever creative vision I have at the time.”
Guillory’s grandfather served as Le Capitaine, the captain and leader of the group, and her grandmother sewed the costumes. But her road to creating courir outfits didn’t stem from her own family’s history. Guillory was working at Wal-Mart when she befriended a customer who needed help making the suits. She obliged, and soon after decided that she would do it on her own. She’s been doing so for the last 15 years. And can tell you a thing or two about the ritual.
“There is a purpose to the way the costumes are made,” Guillory explains. “When the tradition started, they would cover their faces, hair and skin when they would go to the houses to beg for ingredients. Cajuns are proud people and wouldn’t want anyone to know that they were begging.”
Jack & Jean Of All Trades
When you pull up to the bright purple building on an unassuming corner of the road in Church Point, it’s immediately evident that an adventure in the traditional costumes of Curir de Mardi Gras awaits you inside. Tommy and Jean Norman, the owners of Le Vieux Moulin – Mardi Gras Store, have been married for 20 years and have been creating sought after costumes together equally as long. But that’s not all they create. The shop is lined with 20 years of collections and creations.
“They call me ‘Sanford & Son,’” Tommy laughs. Jean chimes in, “He’s a collector. He even collected me!” The inventory of Le Vieux Moulin is a testament to the couples wide ranging resumes. “Jean is a singer, a songwriter, a guitar player, a fabric artist and a joke teller,” Tommy says, cueing Jean for her turn. “And Tommy is a clock maker, a guitar designer, a drummer, an antique collector and a mask maker.”
Tommy is also a fabric expert. After returning from the Vietnam War, the Lafayette native lived in Chicago where he worked for a suit shop. But it’s Jean, who remembers the curirs from her childhood in Church Point, who puts his fabric selections together. With her serger, which ensures seams will withstand even the roughest rides, and her sewing machine, she creates one-of-a-kind costumes. Sometimes, the delicate process takes her three days. And if there is a mistake, she starts over.
“When I look back at my first costumes, I’m so embarrassed,” Jean laughs. “I learn something new every single year. I do not make any costumes, unless you request it, from the same fabric. They are all one of a kind. When I’m making them, I already have an idea of what I’m going to do. The only thing that changes is the fringe – the frills. If I get in a bind, Tommy helps and directs me. He’s an artist.”
“I don’t know everything that she knows and vice versa,” Tommy says as a cacophony of chimes ring out from the wall of clocks he’s created or repaired. “We rely on each other and it’s worked out pretty well.”
Tommy creates the final piece of the costume’s puzzle – the screen mask. He designs each one to be a complement to a costume, with the same colors and geometric designs. He creates 100 to 200 pieces at a time. When he’s done, Jean makes the noses, complete with little bells on the end.
To many in south Louisiana, wearing one of the Normans’ suits is akin to wearing the finest silk. But the intrigue of these ensembles has spread far and wide. They have created costumes to be shipped all over the world – San Antonio, Canada, New York, Virginia, Philadelphia and France.
“We can’t retire,” Jean says solemnly from her little sewing nook. “This store was my dream. All of this, this is our passion. For me the colors on my costumes represent the rainbow, and that’s beautiful. That’s what I love about Mardi Gras.”
For the Normans, everyday is Mardi Gras. As you leave Les Vieux Moulin, Tommy will be rhythmically stomping his handmade Cajun jam stick while Jean croons the lyrics to the Mardi Gras Song “Les Chaisson des Mardi Gras.”
“Voulez-vous recevoir mais cette bande de Mardi Gras?”
Would you like to receive this band of Mardi Gras?