For our Carnival ritual, I worked with author and cultural authority Henri Schindler to create a display that exemplified the creativity and genius of Carnival of the Golden Age. In our research, I learned the same person who designed the costumes for Carnival krewes often designed the floats and the invitations. Which makes sense for a consistent aesthetic among various mediums.
While sourcing Mr. Schindler’s books on Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I came across a woman named Carlotta Bonnecaze. Her identity is elusive, as mysterious as Marie Laveau, but her designs are legendary. Ranked among Carnival’s greatest works. Not only was she the first Creole to design costumes for Carnival krewes, she was the first female. And her Proteus procession of 1896 titled “Dumb Society” was one to marvel over. I had the honor of seeing her original watercolor paintings in-person courtesy of Tulane University’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library's Special Collections.
Her work is extraordinary. Each image achieving drama beyond line and color; the creatures are further personified with theatrical gestures. For example, the float titled “The Chase” features dogs with rifles dressed in antebellum military garb. Evoking a variety of militia. A terrier wears a kilt with a sash and holds a spear. The pointer, dressed like a Native American, has feathers on his head and raises his arrow as though he is ready to thread it on his bow. The St. Bernard wears a cowboy hat, leather boots up his thighs, a canteen and satchel with his shotgun lowered but ready for a quick draw. Buttoned in a petticoat, the greyhound stands mid stride, with his gun pointing skyward. The poodle in his pink suit with white fur trim blows the horn to sound off the chase. The bear wears Napoleon’s hat and and royal blue coat with a sword on his hip. The fox is a captive, bound by chains. His posture reflects his circumstances. Submissive and down-trotted. Complete surrender.
Once her designs were complete, she shipped the very plates I viewed to Paris where the costumes would be assembled for the following year’s Carnival.
"Whimsical Mardi Gras watercolors from 1896 adorn the International House Hotel's lobby" Pope, John Nola.com | February 08, 2015
"Don't Miss Events in New Orleans, Feb. 12-19, 2015" theneworleansadvocate.com | February 16, 2015
"New Orleans Carnival Exhibit at International House" ihhotel.com | February 2015