Mardi Gras in New Orleans: The Krewes, Floats, Costumes, Beads and Unique Heritage in Pictures

The New Orleans festival is known for its unique celebrations—but where do they come from?
18 Mardi Gras costumes
Mardi Gras in New Orleans: The Krewes, Floats, Costumes, Beads and Unique Heritage in Pictures Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Mardi Gras is usually thought of as a Catholic festival, but its origins likely predate the birth of Christ. Some historians trace the celebrations back to the raucous Roman fertility festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. The Church incorporated the celebrations into Christianity and the festival spread around Europe, and eventually into the New World—the first Mardi Gras on U.S. soil was celebrated by French settlers in 1699.

Mardi Gras officially marks the beginning of Lent, a final blowout before the 40 days of fasting before Easter Sunday. But many elements of the New Orleans celebration hark back to its pagan roots, the festival's journey through Europe, and the American culture which absorbed it.

The Costumes

Costumes have long been a big part of Mardi Gras, with the festival's masquerade balls dating back to medieval Europe. In 1730, a French reveller in New Orleans described his Mardi Gras costume: a "French shepherdess, along with plenty of beauty marks, too, and even on my breasts, which I had plumped up." In 1835, James R. Creecy described revellers in "horrible, humorous, strange masks and disguises… man-bats from the moon; mermaids, satyrs, beggars, monks and robbers." Some women attract attention for their lack of costume—this tradition of toplessness is over a hundred years old, but was popularized in the "Girls Gone Wild" era.

The Krewes

Krewes (pronounced crews) are organizations that fund and host parades or balls during Mardi Gras. This tradition dates ba ck to 1857, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus—a secret society of local businessmen—organized a parade of marching bands, torches and floats. Their parade was so popular that it attracted thousands of revellers the following year, reviving the festival. Before 1900, only five clubs existed: Comus, Momus, Twelfth Night, Rex and Proteus. They were controlled exclusively by powerful men and their private balls were high society events.

But the number of krewes expanded over the 20th century, including Irish krewes and krewes for women. In 1991, the krewes were forced by the New Orleans City Council to integrate or disband—the Mistick Krewe of Comus chose to disband rather than alter its white, male makeup. These days, dozens of krewes continue the tradition, and although they can be joined by anyone, their membership often reflects a segregated origin—for example, Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club is mostly African-American. In recent years, the Zulu krewe have faced mounting pressure to change their traditional costume, which includes makeup resembling blackface, even though the krewe remains 90 percent black.

Themes

Each krewe has their own yearly theme, and they traditionally relate to myths and the spiritual world. The first theme, set by The Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857, was "The Demon Actors in Milton's Paradise Lost." After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, a number of floats and costume themes acted as a criticism of the government response to the disaster. This year, The Krewe of Bacchus's theme is "Starring Louisiana," with floats celebrating movies and television shows filmed in Louisiana.

The Floats

An early Mardi Gras celebration in 1710 saw a cart topped with the head of a large bull pushed through the streets to symbolize the beginning of Lent, during which meat was prohibited. These days, krewes work on their floats for months in secret locations around the city. Krewe members will ride up to 40 floats in each parade, tossing beads and other trinkets to the crowd below. Kern Studios, a family-owned business, is the biggest professional float maker, having started in 1932 with a mule pulling a garbage wagon. Today they create hundreds of floats each year, decked out in LED lights and elaborate set designs.

Throws

Festival goers eagerly await the "throws" tossed from the floats in a practice that dates back to the 1870s. Beads became the most popular trinket during the late 1800s. Back then they were made of glass, and imported from Czechoslovakia or Japan; today they're plastic and come from China. Girls traditionally shout "Throw me something, mister!" and will even flash in exchange for beads. Cups, coins and stuffed animals are also thrown. Many krewes have a signature throw—The Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale rains down mirrored compacts on the crowd, while the Krewe of Zulu throw coconuts.

Newsweek has collected pictures from the last 15 years of Mardi Gras, showing the carnival's weird and wonderful traditions in action.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images