Wed. Mar 3rd, 2021
Feathers and Female Power: The Costumes of Carnival


A vibrant, skimpy ensemble worn at a Caribbean Carnival is so significantly far more than a visual delight: “It’s a celebration of women’s glory in themselves.”

The blinged-out swimsuits and colorful plumage noticed at Carribean Carnivals from London to New York to Toronto get months to finish and involve an market of designers, seamstresses, feather staff and wire benders. The girls who get portion in this masquerade — “mas,” it is known as — have transformed a tradition rooted in Roman Catholicism and Black resistance to slavery into a effectiveness of female empowerment, resistance and self-expression.

“It’s a celebration of women’s glory in themselves,” explained Frances Henry, an anthropologist and co-editor of the guide “Carnival is Lady.” And that goes for all girls, explained Natasha Marshall, a Brooklyn-primarily based designer: “You can be plus dimension, and a triple-X, and appear just as excellent as someone that wears a dimension five.”

Just a couple of days in the past, we would have been amid the 1000’s taking part in mas in Trinidad. But the pandemic has disrupted Carnival. “Covid has annihilated our festival in this historical way,” explained Keisha Als, a Trinidadian designer.

I am a Instances reporter who was born Black and female in Mobile, Ala., a former slave port that grew to become portion of the Underground Railroad. It is also property to the oldest Carnival in the United States.

Currents of colonialism and slavery that shaped existence in the Caribbean also defined it in America. For me, taking part in mas is a way to connect with a more substantial diaspora of men and women who truly feel empowered by legacies of resistance. I know firsthand how transformative the costumes can be.

Because my to start with mas in 2015, I’ve returned yearly to cities like Baltimore and Kingston, Jamaica, to chip, pump and wine — movements of mas — amid 1000’s of revelers. “People dwell a thousand lives,” we sang along to a single of the year’s most well-known soca tunes final February, “and in no way truly feel this free of charge.” Carnival may possibly be canceled this yr, but the costumes are even now telling stories.



A Residing Fantasy

Carnival costumes signify characters, symbols and tips tied to more substantial themes of background, folklore, fantasy and culture.

A single of the most latest costumes to seem in a Carnival was Ryoko, a warrior inspired by the protagonist of the fantasy novel “Tales of the Dragon Princess.”



Solange Govia, the designer, developed a backpack featuring twin origami-type dragons. Shiny velvet offers them scales pointy, trimmed feathers in jewel tones of blue, purple and orange adorn the curve of their wire spines. The outfit was portion of a more substantial tribute to Trinidad’s Asian population, which consists of men and women of Indian and Chinese descent.



“There’s no portion of the costume that was not created with the dragon in thoughts,” Ms. Govia explained. “I wished girls to truly feel effective in the encounter of something.”



The feeling that Carnival brings can be healing. That is what I wanted final yr when my cousin was shot and killed. A week soon after his funeral, I boarded a plane to Port of Spain. I wore a premium Ryoko costume that expense me far more than a month’s lease. When I stepped out on the street in my costume, heartbroken even now, I felt a energy surging in me. I known as it joy.



Chest higher, shoulders back

Trinidad’s mas originated in the 18th century, when enslaved and free of charge Africans dressed up to mimic the European settlers who excluded them as visitors through festivities in advance of Lent.

As Trinidad evolved from a slave colony to a free of charge republic, its Carnival altered from remaining the province of the elites to a celebration of resistance and freedom for the masses. Émigrés like Claudia Jones in London also organized celebrations in enclaves exactly where they settled with migrants from the more substantial Caribbean diaspora.



Girls more and more acquired financial independence from guys, and they took on a better part in Carnival, exactly where they discovered the self-assurance to express themselves and challenge societal strictures and expectations of modesty.



A single of the evident strategies designers proceed tradition is via plumage. Bliss, a costume Marlon Good created for final year’s Hollywood Carnival in Los Angeles, characteristics a significant feathered headpiece that recalls the Indigenous-type headdresses of the previous-time, Black Indian mas of Trinidad and the Southern United States.



Neon-yellow turkey, ostrich and nandu feathers layer above light brown peacock plumes at the crown, forming a form that cascades to the ground. It is held with each other by helmet-like wiring soldered to a bejeweled faceplate shaped like upside-down ram’s horns.

Mr. Good explained the resemblance to standard headdresses was unintentional, although the appear offers the costume very similar airs of nobility and regality. That tends to make ordinary girls truly feel effective, he explained.

Created by Veronica Chambers, Danny DeBelius, Marcelle Hopkins, Ruru Kuo, Antonio de Luca, Adam Sternbergh, Dodai Stewart, Amanda Webster. Prop styling by Sohani Holland.

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