Uninvited nineteenth-century Mardi Gras Rebels created their own parades and celebrations. They had no choice if they wanted to participate rather than watch from sidelines. The Mystic Krewe of Comus held its first formal parade in the mid-1800s. The Krewe of Rex, Knights of Momus and later the Krewe of Proteus followed with their own parades and balls. Members of these early clubs were exclusively white males from the upper echelons of New Orleans society. Females were included, but mostly for display. Entrance to elegant festivities was by invitation only.
Among the uninvited were those outside the upper social circles, African Americans and members of other racial and ethnic groups. Some women were invited, but they were definitely not decision makers. Following are three of our favorite rebel groups from the early days of Mardi Gras New Orleans.
Nineteenth-Century Mardi Gras Rebels #1: Les Mysterieuses
It was 1896—a leap year. According to tradition, women could make advances toward men during these years that would be unacceptable in normal years. During leap year, they could even propose marriage. Several prominent New Orleans women leapt at the opportunity to form the first all-female Krewe. They called it Les Mysterieuses. Their second ball was held on the next leap year in 1900.
These first founders selected a man to reign as their king. They placed him on display, just as Queens were displayed that year in the traditional balls. Throughout the ceremonies, these uninvited nineteenth-century Mardi Gras rebels reversed typical male and female roles. Women, for example, asked men for dances while the men had to wait for an invitation.
Les Mysterieuses were obviously having some fun. But at the same time, they were turning the status quo on its head. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a very active time for New Orleans ladies’ social clubs. Many embraced the fight for suffrage. Though it had nothing directly to do with Mardi Gras or Les Mysterieuses, 1896 was the same year that Kate Gordon founded the Equal Rights Association (Era Club) for her serious work towards voting rights and civic reforms.
Since Les Mysterieuses’ first leap, many all-female Krewes have emerged and redefined Mardi Gras with a woman’s touch. But they haven’t always been accepted with open arms. In 1941 the Krewe of Venus became the first all-female Krewe to parade through the streets of New Orleans. Among the founders were many successful businesswomen who were more than capable of financing and organizing their parade without male assistance.
According to newspapers including the Times-Picayune, an angry crowd pelted Venus with rotten vegetables. But the parade must go on and so it did. Clearly, the all-female Krewe of Venus took their groundbreaking work quite seriously and so they made history.
Nineteenth-Century Mardi Gras Rebels #2: Zulu Social Aid And Pleasure Club
The Zulu Social Aid And Pleasure Club began as a benevolent aid society that marched in Mardi Gras from 1901 or earlier. Benevolent aid societies were an early form of insurance in which members paid dues and those who fell on misfortune would be covered from the group fund. At that time they were known as “The Tramps” who wore baggy pants.
As the story goes, The Tramps attended a vaudevillian comedy show by the Smart Set called There was and Never Will Be a King Like Me. The characters in the musical comedy wore grass skirts and dressed in blackface—a common practice for both black and white performers in vaudevillian theater.
The Tramps were so inspired by the show that they emerged with a mock Zulu motif. Their costumes included grass skirts and black face. In 1909, the club’s first King, William Story, appeared with a lard-can crown and a banana stalk scepter, poking fun at the King of Rex. While Rex arrived ceremoniously with pomp and splendor on a Mississippi River steamboat, the Zulu King arrived on a humble oyster tugboat from New Basin Canal.
In 1915, the Zulu king’s float was decorated with palmetto leaves and Spanish moss. Their first decorated platform was a unicorn constructed from dry goods boxes sitting on a spring wagon.
According to NewOrleansOnline.com, some believe:
“…the early Zulus were a parody on the staid white celebration of Mardi Gras. Whether true or not, the Zulus did march to their own drumbeat. Originally, they had members dress as females to serve as queen; later, female impersonators “reigned” as queens; finally hey began having women as queens.”
In 1916, the club incorporated into a formal organization with 22 members and bylaws as the official Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. They retained their earlier social mission of dedication to benevolence and goodwill.
In the 1960s, the Zulus came under fire for wearing blackface and promoting stereotypes. Its membership dwindled to 16, but the club prevailed. One long-time member, James Russell held the organization together. It has risen back to a position of great notoriety. It is known internationally as a premiere Mardi Gras organization. More significantly, the Zulus are known for their wide-ranging aid and generosity in their community.
According to PBS.org, Zulu is about fun, but it also has a much deeper meaning.
“Zulu is about the city’s African-American community asserting its right to parade in public spaces, to subvert racist images, and to participate in civic culture. Given New Orleans’s extraordinarily complicated racial dynamics, these are important and powerful impulses. And so Zulu isn’t just about fun; it’s also about people asserting their citizenship.”
And Last But Not Least, #3: The Baby Dolls
Yes, the Baby Dolls were first officially formed in 1912, but their roots are firmly planted in the 1800s so they qualify. They were an organization of African American women who worked in the brothels of Storyville, the semi-legal red-light district of New Orleans.
The Baby Dolls emerged circa 1912 to compete in Mardi Gras parading with other African American women working in their profession. They wore short satin dresses, bonnets, stockings and garters. Their outlandish behavior was provocative. They smoked cigars, tossed dollar bills at the crowds and strutted with their signature “raddy walking” and “shake dancing.” These women were the original twerkers.
In her book, The ‘Baby Dolls’: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, Kim Marie Vaz, Associate dean at Xavier University, New Orleans, traces how these women strutted their stuff into a predominantly male establishment.
They not only exploited stereotypes, but also empowered and made visible an otherwise marginalized demographic of women. A new generation of Baby Dolls emerged after Katrina, with all their exuberance to redefine Carnival traditions.
“Mardi Gras maskers of the Baby Doll tradition began as a small group of determined, independent-minded Black Creole women of New Orleans who came together and rebelled against the many constraints they faced regarding segregation and gender discrimination. With an immeasurable love of freedom on every Mardi Gras Day, groups of Black Women and some men became the Baby Dolls” and would parade, sing and dance while representing their independent free spirit.” Kim Marie Vaz
Storyville closed in 1917, but the Baby Doll costumes survived and became part of family traditions in African-American neighborhoods. They were a bright thread in the fabric of neighborhood Carnival celebrations. Today, they’re re-emerging as a significant force in Mardi Gras.
Wishing A Happy Fat Tuesday To All With Rebellion In Their Blood!
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