The Makers Behind Remarkably Ornate Mardi Gras Costumes

A member of a tribe practicing Black Masking Indian culture in New Orleans, Charles DuVernay is upcycling his meticulously crafted ceremonial costumes into glimmering beaded wall works.

Photography by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Many think of the most famous celebration in New Orleans as an occasion to booze and bead-throw, but the Mardi Gras Indians—a group composed of different “tribes” of Black residents, many of Creole descent—take the festivities seriously. Months in advance, they’re hard at work hand-making ceremonial garments for a spectacular carnival event where each member dons breathtaking homemade suits that nod to Native American dress. (In response to French colonial rule of Louisiana, many Black individuals who escaped indentured servitude found refuge in Indigenous communities, where they traded goods and intermarried.) 

Makers spend hundreds of hours crafting a single costume, which they flaunt on the Super Sunday before Fat Tuesday, the last day of Mardi Gras before Lent. The more flamboyant and expressive the costumes, the better. Bright feathers, beads, and embroidery accentuate sculptural constructions that can be abstract or graphic depending on the tribe. Different tribes face off against each other by competing over whose “big chief” is wearing the grandest costume. Today, the Mardi Gras tribes consist of two camps: the Uptown Indians, distinguished by their flat-beaded designs and depictions of Indigenous culture, and the Downtown Indians, who focus on abstraction and 3D constructions.

Photography by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Charles DuVernay, a member of the Monogram Hunters, falls in the latter category. After learning the ropes of sewing as a child, a “spiritual calling” compelled him to return to the practice—a process that took “seven years to marinate, reflect, and commit” before he began designing his own suits in 2019. With beads and sequins individually sewn, each suit—with support from the collective, of course—takes upwards of 900 hours to create. “Sewing is actually the easier part of suit making,” DuVernay tells Surface, noting they often start next year’s garment the day after Mardi Gras. “Construction and building the suit is the hardest part.” He describes it as a labor of love and dedication that involves mastering secret sewing techniques passed down from generations. 

Though fanciful, the garments are only worn once or twice before being hung up forever—or, in some cases, ritually burnt. “Most [makers] spend thousands of hours on our suit-making, only to wear them once, maybe twice, never to be seen again,” DuVernay continues. “It’s the nature of the tradition. We take the creative process and pageantry seriously, and you would never wear your suit from one year to the next. Our desire is to extend the artistic practice by giving our work a second life and making this heritage contemporary.”

Image courtesy of Guilty By Association

Encouraged by the Uptown Indians’ repurposing methods, DuVernay started disassembling his own retired costumes and upcycling their beaded patches into 11 embroidered tapestries bearing stories about his community’s experiences with hope, rebirth, and coexistence. Flowering Pot speaks to father-daughter relationships by melding a cufflink from his 2020 suit with leaves from his daughter Sadie’s apron. Golden Dragon, a lustrous headboard emblazoned with glass beads, rhinestones, and sequins, speaks to the creature’s strength and tenacity. “We want to tell new stories that blend past and present,” he says, “and share our passion with a wider audience beyond New Orleans.” 

DuVernay is succeeding at that endeavor. The tapestries, which range in price from $1,900 to $3,200, are on view at creative online marketplace Guilty By Association’s Brooklyn outpost (197 Bond Street) until the end of October. And more are on the way: a follow-up collection made in collaboration with other tribes, called “Swamp Party,” is on track for the spring. 

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