Looking at many of the designs it is difficult to believe that New Orleans Mardi Gras Parades were exclusive to men during much of the Golden Age. The Krewes were secretive “men only” organizations such that even the fair Dido in Briton’s The Aeneid would have been a mustachioed if not bearded gentleman. In 1880 the Krew of Momus took as their theme A Dream of Fair Women which led one society columnist to record her inability to suspend disbelieve. Catherine Cole wryly noted: … I confess my imagination was not vivid enough to fancy ‘fair women’ in the lot of gorgeously apparelled brawny men who hid their beards and moustaches behind false faces. Adieu! It was a perfect nightmare!
Though women were working behind the scenes from the beginning it was not until 1922 that the all-female Krewe of Iris held a tableaux ball. However they didn’t parade until 1959. That honour fell to the Krewe of Venus who held the first all-female parade in 1941. Their theme was Goddesses and the display was worthy of the subject and the importance of the event.
But it wasn’t all glitter and gorgeous throws. To begin with it rained; then they were subject to taunts and catcalls from crowds along the way. But even worse they became the targets for organized gangs that threw rotten vegetables and eggs. Despite the chauvinistic naysayers the Krewe continued to parade every year until they disbanded in 1992. They were the torchbearers for the many female Krewes and marchers that were to follow.
But I digress: from 1885 to 1896 the spectacular floats of the Krewe of Proteus may have been manned (sorry) by gorgeously costumed men however those floats and frocks were created by a woman: Carlotta Bonnecaze.
Little is known about Carlotta Bonnecaze except that she was a Creole and the first woman to designed a parade and tableaux ball. There is an indication that she was the daughter of an Alexander Bonnecaze who was a member of Proteus. Her only known designs were for that Krewe and because of the secrecy surrounding designers her work went unrecognized until 1922 when a gift to the Louisiana State Museum of preliminary sketches brought her name to light. They revealed the meticulous detail that went into the work in the fanciful designs she created.
Here’s the finished design for The Festival of Lanterns float from her first parade in 1885: Myths and Worships of China. Roll the mouse over the finished design to see her first thoughts.
Over the thirteen years Bonnecaze designed for Proteus she looked to the gods and legends of China, India, Scandinavia, Persia, Arabia, and Europe of the Middle Ages for her themes. The Stars were her inspiration for Visions of Other Words which was deemed one of her finest displays. But she was also capable of a touch of whimsy dressing Krewe members as peas, corn, and other vegetables and surrounding them with sixteen feet high flora and fauna in A Dream of the Vegetable Kingdom in 1892. But it was in 1896 that she combined the whimsical and her flair for the eccentric in Dumb Society. She may have lacked the stiletto satire of Briton but for all their charm her anthropomorphic comments on social mores of the time had a certain bite.
So once again this we take our places on that balcony overlooking the broad avenue that is Canal Street and watch the passing parade. (A right click will enlarge each picture for a closer look.)
The numbering of the floats on Carlotta Bennecaze’s design does not include the banner float – a proud American Eagle bearing the legend of the theme; I’ll use the larger number when remarking on a particular float.
Number 4 is a rather pointed trial scene: the fox would seem to be the outsider in a courtroom filled with birds listening to the Mother Hen pleading her case. And it would appear that Justice overlooking the proceedings is either a donkey (the Democrats?) or just an ass!
Rather amusingly the oblivious mice cavort under the “guardian” gaze of two very attentive cats – lunchtime on Float 8? And that avian “glee club” that follows on Float 9 includes an endearing little chick cradled in an egg.
Washington is still a source of amusement – President Grover Cleveland’s passion for fishing is guyed – howbeit gently in Presidential Sporting (#!)) . And Float 13 takes a poke at ladies of fashion peacocking it around town, ignoring the fact that there is nothing plainer than a peahen. And what could be more elegant than an elephant taking afternoon tea (#14) served by a donkey in full livery?
My definite favourite is #15 the “Last Rites”: Cock Robin, his breast pierced by that infamous arrow, is laid to rest by an officiating sparrow as a bull (?) tolls the death knell on a nearby bluebell.
Bonnecaze designed 110 costumes and masks for the spectacle. Everything from an alligator in a tail coat to that brace of very fashionable peacocks to a weevil in an equally fashionable hobble-skirt. Though by 1873 the floats and paper-maché heads were being made in New Orleans many of the costumes were still being made overseas. Designs and measurements would be sent to well-known costume houses in France and on more than one occasion there were concerns about delivery as Mardi Gras drew near.
Carlotta Bonnecaze was to design only one more Mardi Gras for the Krewe of Proteus. On March 1 1897 her vision of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso processed down Canal Street. As the flambeaux illuminating Orlando’s final combat faded from sight her name disappeared from Mardi Gras history until the serendipitous discover in 1922. Carlotta Bonnecaze regained her rightful place amongst the creators of the Golden Age.
As noted last week many of the images in the posts I am creating are from the exceptional Mardi Gras collection at Howard Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University and Louisiana Digital Library. And much of the nuggets of Mardi Gras came from two of the Mardi Gras Treasures books by the doyen of Mardi Gras designers Henri Schindler.