New Orleans Mardi Gras has grown to be as internationally famous as other Carnivals all around the world. Out of all of the traditions associated with the celebration, one of the most enduring is masking. The act of covering one’s face with a mask and costuming made its way to New Orleans through thousands of years of history.
“You go back to the ancient origins of Carnival and even pre-Christian, especially pre-Christian, and there’s always been some kind of masking season,” Errol Laborde, executive editor of New Orleans Magazine, says.
Laborde says that masking culture, also known as masquerading, can be traced as far back as ancient Rome, where people would celebrate the changing seasons with festivals like Saturnalia and Lupercalia. During these festivities, servants would dress like their masters and the masters would dress like the servants.
“I think probably the earliest sort of masquerading was men dressing like women,” Laborde says. “There was always kind of a given that people would just dance in the streets and put on different costumes.”
Carl Mack, founder of the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture and president of Carl Mack Presents, describes how masking really thrived in the Middle Ages and how the concept of “farewell to the flesh” worked itself into being known as Carnival.
“From ‘carnival,’ the portion of the word ‘carne’ means ‘meat’ and ‘val’ is the verb ‘to go,’” Mack says. “Before there was Spain, Italy, Germany, France, there were little kingdoms. A little castle on a hill surrounded by peasants and they would cook all of the meats in the middle of winter. Then after they ate all of the meat, they would store it up for the winter. They didn’t eat meat for a long time, which of course, became Lent.”
“The nobility in the castle would hear all of the fun the peasants were having and they’d like to go participate,” Mack says. “But they could get in trouble if they misbehaved too much, create a little intrigue in the castle, gossip and so forth. So they began to conceal their identities, put on a mask, go sneak around, and see what was going on down there, go have some fun.”
Mack says the peasants would also make fun of the nobility during the festivities by dressing up like them.
“So those origins predate the Christian calendar,” he says. “It was then organized by the Christian calendar, but these were celebrations going on in the middle of winter with the royalty dressing up like fools and the fools dressing up like royalty. And that’s the origin of masking tradition in our Carnival, the ‘farewell to the flesh’ celebration.”
The concept of Carnival and masquerading eventually crossed over to the United States in the form of mummery, which involved people masquerading during New Year’s and singing songs at people’s homes in exchange for food or drink. Laborde theorized that mummery was popular all over the East Coast and as people spread out from there to the rest of the country, their traditions went with them. This eventually led to the first official American Mardi Gras being done in Mobile, Alabama.
“On New Year’s Eve night, 1830, a group of people went into a bar and, as the legend goes, they realized it was getting to be New Year’s,” Laborde says. “And so they went, and I guess they were already masquerading to begin with, and right next door was a hardware store and it was unlocked. And so they got some cowbells and some rakes and they went down the streets of Mobile making noise. And they had a good time doing that, so they decide to make that an annual thing. So they called themselves the Cowbellion Society.“
The formation of the Cowbellion Society was very important for New Orleans’ Mardi Gras because the original Krewe of Comus borrowed ideas from the Cowbellions to use in their own parade.
“In 1857, which was when the Comus parade started, that was the first parade in New Orleans that lasted,” Laborde said. “There had always been some miscellaneous parades, but the real start of the parading tradition was in 1857.”
New Orleans Mardi Gras masking separates itself from other Carnivals due to the fact that New Orleanians can mask without having to wear a mask. Mack explained that New Orleans masking is instead defined by taking on a different personality or transforming through simply wearing a costume, such as the Mardi Gras Indians.
“I feel that the whole masking culture can refer to putting on a costume, not strictly putting on a mask,” he reiterates. “Although their face may not be concealed, it’s still a mask. It’s a culture of excitement and a common consciousness that we all want to have a fantastic Mardi Gras.”
Mack stated that while cities like Venice have a number of traditional masks that are associated with their Carnival, New Orleans really only has one.
“I would have to say that the most signature mask of New Orleans that you don’t find anywhere else is the little plastic mask that the float riders wear on typical Carnival floats, and they cut the eyeholes nice and big to make them comfortable,” Mack says. “I can’t think of any other mask that is as traditional or as signature as that mask.”
The mask is so signature to New Orleans Mardi Gras that by city law, people riding on a float during a parade are supposed to keep the mask on. While Laborde said that this law has been in place as early as 1930s, it’s not always enforced.
“They wanted to maintain a tradition to New Orleans Mardi Gras,” Laborde says. “Somebody who says, ‘Well, I’m not gonna wear a mask.’ I doubt the police are going to throw him in jail. But usually what happens is that the parade officials monitor the parades, and if there are some serious unmasking, those people would just be kicked out of the krewe.”
Both Laborde and Mack say they believe masking culture in New Orleans Mardi Gras has continuously grown in popularity and will keep doing so in the future.
“A lot of times today you hear, ‘Oh, there’s not as much masking as there used to be,’” Laborde says. “I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s more masking than there used to be.”
“A person that maybe used to just need one Mardi Gras costume now needs like six because there are so many subgroups to Mardi Gras and parading organizations and walking clubs,” Mack says. “There’s so much to do now that people can’t just do it with one mask or one suit. They have to have multiples to get through the Carnival season now.”