Heart of Louisiana: Historic Mardi Gras costumes

For more than a century, the Louisiana State Museum has been quietly collecting samples of historical clothing.  Tucked away in an unmarked French Quarter warehouse is a stunning collection of Mardi Gras history.

Wayne Phillips is the curator of costumes with the museum.  He says most of the costumes are not normally on display.

"I always call this Louisiana's closet. Because just about anything that you can name that is in your closet or in your drawers at home or in your jewelry cabinet is here at the state museum," Phillips said.  "These were all float riders' costumes from parades that took place in the 1940's, possibly even earlier."

You can see the fine craftsmanship of the older carnival wear.

"Most of which were made by professional seamstresses and tailors here in the city and were always made of silk, the finest materials, sometimes real fur."

Rex, the king of carnival, wore an ornate tunic in 1923.  It's something you can only see at the museum.

"This is a beautiful silk damask used to make this costume with sort of a gold thread running through it."

From the time it opened in 1906, the Louisiana State Museum has been saving costumes, and uniforms, and everyday clothing from Louisiana.  Today, that collection totals at least 2,500 thousand pieces.

Among those pieces, the 100-year-old crown jewels from the Queen of Proteus that would have been made by a Parisian jeweler and imported to New Orleans, according to Phillips.

One of the oldest artifacts is a ball invitation that predates New Orleans' first Mardi Gras parade.

"A ball invitation from a Mardi Gras ball that was held at the St. Charles Hotel in 1854," Phillips said.  He points to a child's costume.  It is "just a street costume. It's probably homemade by his mother. Dates to about the 1940's."

For about 20 years, Rex wore this costume for his Mardi Gras parade.  It was last worn in 2005.

"It was found in the den, in the Rex den after Katrina and was damaged but not destroyed," Phillips pointed out.   The garment will stay in its damaged condition, as part of the history of carnival.

"That's one of the things that has broken my heart the most studying post-Katrina Mardi Gras is what was lost.  Many of the Mardi Gras Indians had multiple suits in their homes and lost just about everything that they possessed at the time which documented years and years of creativity for them."

Now, these pieces of our history belong to the people of Louisiana, items donated by kings and queens and the families of Mardi Gras commoners. These are costumes that brought laughter and joy to a celebration that is part of the fabric of New Orleans.

You can get a glimpse of some of the state museum's "Hidden Treasures" of carnival during a special event later this month.  The state museum and the "Friends of the Cabildo" are hosting a special tour of the museum's storage rooms on Tuesday night, January 25.

To reserve your space, call 504-523-3939, or purchase online at  http://www.friendsofthecabildo.org