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The Golden Age of the Mardi Gras Artists

Where did those amazing floats begin?

Mardi Gras Floast

Gailveassey under CC0 Creative Commons Licensing.

One of many amazing things about New Orleans was the Mardi Gras floats. On parade days they would rise out of the masses of people with their raised arms clamoring, “Throw me something, mister!”

But where did they come from? Where did the amazing floats begin?

Carlotta Bonnecaze’s Visions of Other Worlds morphed paper mache, wood, paint, and a horse-drawn cart into Saturn, covered with prickly cacti, and a desolate moon. And her amazing costume and masks designs transformed ordinary humans into six-armed aliens, wizened figures frozen in gray craters, and lightning-wielding extraterrestrials riding on a comet. She was just one of the incredible artists who fashioned fantasy into reality in the Golden Age of Mardi Gras. 

Bror Anders Wikstrom, one of the leading creators of parade design, studied art in Stockholm and Parris before he came to New Orleans in 1889. Two years later he was designing spectacular floats, costumes, jewelry, and invitations for the Rex Krewe. In addition to 25 years of Mardi Gras art, designing for Rex parades from 1885 until 1905, and Proteus from 1900 until his death in 1909, he was a praised and sought-after illustrator, cartoonist, set designer, and portrait painter.

This is what the New York Times wrote about Wikstrom’s work on March 6, 1889, when reporting on the New Orleans Mardi Gras that year: 

  • Regarding the float and costumes, he designed for Rex’s theme of Treasures of the Earth—“A Crystal float with thousands of prisms and a Diamond float featuring a rocky diamond dell through which flowed limpid streams where nymphs sported and played with the gems.”  
  • And here is what the Times reported on the float and costumes he designed for Proteu’s Hindu Heavens theme—“In one scene appeared Agni, God of Fire, riding a ram that strides the flames, attended by the fire sprites. This opulent, and highly exoticized, interpretation of South Asian religion concluded with a tableau where Vishnu, under the guise of a horse with silver wings, shatters the earth with his hoof and rises to the celestial abode.”

Wikstrom’s costumes were ingenious. His 1882 Ancient Egyptian Theology illustrations for the Krewe of Proteus transformed the members riding the float into a hieroglyphic-adorned Horus and Anubis. His 1873 costume designs for Comus’ Missing Links morphed the float riders into beetles, coral polyps, ears of corn, grasshoppers, and leeches.

Once his, and other carnival artist’s costume sketches were approved, they were sent to France along with the measurements of the people who’d wear them. There, talented seamstresses using the finest fabrics brought them to life. 

Even in the 19th-century male-dominated art scene, several women excelled in carnival designs. The prolific Jennie Wilde brought sumptuous Art Nouveau sophistication to her sketches for Comus and Momus. For her Lord Byron–themed floats, she gave life to his abstract poem “Manfred” with a mermaid, waifish spirits, and death in the form of a skull lying in wait. For the Prisoner of Chillon, she had a desolate whiskered man chained up in a Gothic dungeon swarmed by bats, while a creature with massive wings lurked at the float’s prow. 

Carlotta Bonnecaze was another fabulous carnival artist of the period and was both the first Creole and the first woman to design parades.  For over 13 years she created elaborate floats and costumes based on the gods and legends of China, India, Scandinavia, Persia, Arabia, and Europe of the Middle Ages. The galaxy inspired her Visions of Other Worlds, which is regarded as one of her best works.

Ceneilla Bower Alexander and Leda Hinks Plauche were two other outstanding female parade designers. Alexander fashioned an Aurora Borealis float in 1912 and ethereal angel costumes in 1920 for the Rex Krewe.  And, Plauche created feathered serpents and scenes from Don Quixote for Proteus from the 1920s to the 1930s.

Did you learn something new about Mardi Gras floats? I know I did!

Perilously yours,

Pauline

P.S. While my books have not yet featured an actual Mardi Gras parade in the pages, parade season is an integral part of life in the Big Easy (or in my case, The Big Uneasy).

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