Omnia Vanitas

My annual visit to New Orleans for Mardi Gras

Every year for the past five or six I have managed to get to a Mardi Gras parade if only in my imagination. In other years I’ve seen the elaborate and erudite pass-bys of the lofty and prestigious Krewes of Comus, Proteus and Rex but this year I thought I’d attend to a society that Henri Schindler in one of his several gorgeous books refers to as being amongst the Sociétés Perdues (Lost Societies). In fact so “lost” are the Mystik Merrie Bellions that I could only find one reference to them (the Schindler) and a Parade Bulletin from a single parade in 1884.

Many of these crews paraded and/or held tableaux balls for one or two years, others lasted several decades. The Disciples of Thespis, Phunny Phorty Phellows, the Mystic Krewe of Druids, and the Mystik Merrie Bellions all held parades with more satirical, less lofty themes than the big three. The Falstaffians, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the Krewe of Yami and the Krewe of Nippon all hosted elaborate balls at the French Opera House, the St Charles Theatre and the Athenaeum. Amongst the most elaborate were the Falsaffians and the Phunny Phorty Phellows but even then the themes and tableaux were often satires on local politics, fads and fashion foibles.

The Mystic Krewe of Druids followed the Rex Parade from 1922 to 1935. Unlike the older Krewe it was comprised of gentlemen of “moderate means” within the community. However their parades were as elaborate and beautifully designed as those of their “betters”.
Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas*

So elusive is information on the Mystik Merrie (Mystic Merry) Bellions that other than the theme and date of their 1884 parade little appears to be known. How long they paraded or if they ever held a ball are mysteries. Scheduled the same day as the traditional Rex Parade there is no indication as to what time it took place, or the route it followed. So the best I can do is to ask you to join me somewhere in New Orleans, at some time on Tuesday February 26, 1884 to witness the members of the Mystik Merrie Bellions take the micky out of the days’ fashions for both belles and belle-boys!

The parade can be viewed as an autoplay slide show or each float can be viewed singly. The top right icon will stop the auto-lay. Icons will only appear when the mouse is hovering over them.

Given that the Krewe would have been all male it can only be assumed that the gentlemen in their masks and female attired gave an added note of satire to the proceedings. Or perhaps many of the characters on the floats were papier-maché figures or paraders sporting “big heads”. More than one reporter over the years when parades were exclusively male mocked the appearance of bewhiskered men in masks portraying “beauties of the ages”.

Les Mystérieuses

Amongst the Sociétés Perdues Schindler lists the Mittens, the Mystic Maids, Empyreans, the Titanians, Les Pierrettes, and Les Mystérieuses – all female Krewes of the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was an active time for ladies’ social clubs many of which embraced the fight for suffrage. It was naturally to follow that they would challenge the status-quo of “men-only” Krewes. But as parades were a male purview until the Krewe of Venus paraded, to much derision, in 1941 their activities were limited to elaborate tableaux balls.

Les Mystèrieuses only hosted balls twice during their time: 1896 and 1900 – both leap years. The events were unusual gender benders for the time. They named a “King” and the dance cards were for gentlemen and masked ladies requested the “pleasure of this dance”.

Les Mystérieuses, the first female Krewe, hosted balls at the French Opera House twice, first in 1896 and again in 1900 – both leap years. According to tradition in those years women could make advances towards men that would be unacceptable at other times. That went as far as – gasp – proposing marriage.

Both balls were elaborate spectacles and the organizers took full advantage of the leap year tradition. There was a complete reversal of the typical practices of all-male Carnival clubs. The Queen, her court and the ladies present were masked and selected their King, Dukes and dance partners from the men gathered. The King and the Dukes were put on display in the proscenium box and the King’s name was publicized. The Queen’s identity identity remained a secret. The parterre boxes, usually graced with ladies, were filled with over a hundred men in full evening dress waiting to be “called-out” to dance by the masked ladies. Gentlemen were presented with the traditional dance card and bestowed with jewelled watch fobs as ball favours.

In reporting on the first ball the Daily Picayune society editor remarked, “It was good for the men. Now they’d get to see how it feels for a girl to sit and wait to be called-out for a dance.” The unidentified reporter went on to say, it was “most enjoyable to see the young and old beaux puzzled and baffled by bright eyes peeping out from silken masks.”

Many of the Krewes – male and female – disappeared after the Mardi Gras hiatus during the First World War.

Other Parades I’ve “Seen” and Enjoyed

Krewe of Rex 2019: Le Boeuf Gras
Krewe of Comus 1915: Tale from Chaucer
Krewe of Rex 1907: Classics of Childhood
Krewe of Proteus 1899: E Pluribus Unum
Krewe of Proteus 1896: Dumb Society
Krewe of Rex 1892: Symbolism of Colors
Krewe of Proteus 1884: The Aeneid

As always this post is dedicated to Cecilia, my own Carnival Queen!

The word for today is:
Krewe /ˈkrü/: [fabricated noun]
A private society or organization that stages a parade or other event for a carnival celebration. Krewes are associated especially with Mardi Gras in New Orleans where the word was coined by founders of Comus in December of 1856. It’s spelling is an attempt to simulate “Old English”.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

3 thoughts on “Omnia Vanitas”

  1. Very interesting. We have no time now for such frivolity. We are too busy with our noses buried in our smart phones looking for instant gratification. Are we more advanced?

    1. Oh, there is still a great deal of tradition, many balls and general merriment. My favorite time of the year! Thank you Wills, I do so love your Carnival History posts. I told a lovely young man who is a librarian with the Amistad collection at the Howard-Tilton he ought to check your blog for some delightful and thoughtful history lessons. Bit late reporting in, but Mardi Gras day was great fun and then back to real life has been quite busy!

  2. Very interesting Will, although I have to say I became fearful when you said leap years allowed women to advance on men, oh the horror!

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