Heart of Louisiana: Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival

Heart of Louisiana: Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival
Updated: Feb. 21, 2017 at 8:58 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - When Mardi Gras first began in New Orleans in the mid-1800s, it was an all-male event.  It wasn't until the early 1900s that women began forming their own Carnival organizations. This history of these Carnival "goddesses" in now on display.

When you look at Mardi Gras today, it's clear that women's parades are making their mark.  In fact, women are on the verge of having the largest Carnival organizations in New Orleans.

"The women's crews are kicking butt right now," said Kristin Danflous.

Danflous is the captain of Iris, which has seen its membership more than double in the past seven years.  And other female krewes, like Muses with their glittery shoe throws, Nyx and Cleopatra are among Carnival's most popular parades.

"In 1948 the queen of Iris was dressed as Cleopatra," said Wayne Phillips.

The history of Iris and other women's krewes is on display at the Louisiana State Museum. The Goddesses of Carnival exhibit marks the 100th anniversary of the Krewe of Iris - the oldest women's carnival organization in New Orleans.

"Iris actually started as a small ladies social club, ironically during World War I in about 1917," Phillips said.

"The woman who started it, her name was Aminthe Nungesser and she was only 18 years old, so you think about this young woman 18 years old trying to start a Mardi Gras crew before we could even vote!" Danflous said.

But Iris was not the first all women's club. There was the short-lived Mysteriouses. It's first queen featured in this magazine picture.

"They only had two Carnival balls, one in 1896  and one in 1900, which were both leap years," Phillips said. "And it was a common custom throughout the 1800s for women to take on leadership roles that were untraditional, but only during leap years."

Phillips is curator of costumes at the state museum.

"So you can very easily see how this costume represents the Louisiana Tarpon Rodeo," he said.

Phillips helped gather women's Carnival memorabelia for the exhibit.

"This one is my favorite," he said. "This is the Lucky Dog shoe."

From the sought-after Muses shoes, to the glittery purses of the Krewe of Nyx.

"I think it's quite beautiful. It's called the peacock purse," Phillips said.

You can see the colorful evolution of the feminine side of Carnival, and see how women's krewes slowly gained a foothold on their way to becoming a major force in the celebration.

The Krewe of Iris roll Saturday, starting at 11 a.m. Uptown. And the Goddesses of Carnival exhibit is now open at the Louisiana State Museum in the Presbytere in Jackson Square.

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