Sequins, rhinestones and feathers morph into their own universe at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu in Lake Charles, La. The carnival season glitters all year long at the South’s largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes.
“Southern Louisiana tries to share the experience of being in a Mardi Gras ball here at the museum,” said local guide Adley Cormier. “We have more than 400 costumes at any one time, and we rotate them out.”
Travelers are welcome to try on masks and robes, to imagine themselves under carnival spotlights.
North America’s Mardi Gras stretches back to colonial era
Mobile, Ala., celebrated the first Mardi Gras on the North American continent in 1699. The custom spread among Catholic settlers throughout the south.
“We had Mardi Gras in the 19th century, after the Civil War,” Cormier said, “but it was off and on. Serious Mardi Gras in Lake Charles began after the 1950s, when krewes began to organize themselves into the party machines they are now.”
In Lake Charles, Anne. G. Monlezun founded the Krewe de la Famille in 1979, and spearheaded the city’s modern Mardi Gras movement. She also created the first Krewe of Krewes’ parade that year, the carnival’s grand finale that rolls through town the evening of Mardi Gras.
Today, more than 60 krewes party and parade throughout the year, with their pageantry culminating in carnival season from Jan. 6 through Mardi Gras, the day before Lent on the Christian calendar. Lake Charles’ Mardi Gras is the second-largest in Louisiana, based on the number of krewes.
Giving grand Mardi Gras costumes a fresh chance to sparkle
After the last parade rolled, the grand costumes went into closets. “It was so sad,” Monlezun said, “to see them there.”
So she created the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, named for the surrounding parish, in 1997. Its six rooms in the Central School Arts & Humanities Center brim with rhinestones and feathers up to the ceiling.
Dozens of costumes and headdresses, many costing thousands of dollars each, trace the lineage of Lake Charles’ family-centric Mardi Gras celebrations.
“We tried to follow most of the customs of New Orleans,” Monlezun said. “We wanted big, dramatic costumes. We make about 200 costumes a year.
“We are right in the middle between Cajun Mardi Gras and New Orleans Mardi Gras,” she added. “The Cajun was horse and wagon, and horseback riders. In New Orleans, there’s lots made with papier mache. We’re a little dressier than Cajun and not as formal as New Orleans.”
“Mardi Gras is a way of escaping mundane life,” Cormier said, cocooned in feathers and rhinestones at the Mardi Gras museum. “It’s costuming, fun and fellowship.”
When You Go
Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu
Lake Charles, La.