The defining fashion of Mardi Gras of 1921

by Emma Porterfield

The 1920s are famously known as a revolutionary and defining era in the history of fashion. From women’s short, bob haircuts, to fringe and metallic dresses, to shorter and more comfortable dresses, this era helped facilitate modern fashion as we know it. Coming right after the suffrage movement and women’s fight for justice, the 1920s continued women’s freedom in the way that women dressed every day. Even in the Deep South, where women weren’t quite as politically charged as women in the north, provocative fashions were still seen. These fashion trends were seen on the streets of New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras of 1921. Carnival has been a time notoriously known for debauchery and freedom, where many women and men are free to do whatever they please without their normal society looking down upon them. Women and men, even during the 1920s, used Mardi Gras as a way to express themselves in ways their provincial lives wouldn’t allow. This idea of freedom and no boundaries is shown in the fashion worn on the streets of the festivities of Mardi Gras as well. From the perspective of today, one may not understand how groundbreaking the fashion shown on the streets of the French Quarter truly was. 

For onlookers of Mardi Gras today, seeing short dresses and provocative fashion is certainly an understatement. However, these fashions during the 1920s were considered to be “novel”, and were even noted upon in newspapers. From the New Orleans States newspaper dated February 6, 1921, one author noted that the 1921 Mardi Gras costumes would be “gorgeous” and “novel”. In the article, the author goes on to discuss different costumes seen on the streets during the carnival. The author mentions “promiscuous maskers”, “a devil”, and even popular figures of the time such as Charlie Chaplin as popular Mardi Gras costume themes. Costumes such as these truly are revolutionary for the time, as New Orleans was still a religious, deeply Catholic city. The Deep South has a notorious history for being religious and attempting to put up a pure, family-friendly image, so fashions on the street such as devils certainly are revolutionary for the time period.

In addition to the seemingly sacrilegious costumes at this time, another taboo in Mardi Gras fashions of the time was the idea of challenging male gender norms. In one of the most hilarious and shocking newspaper articles of the time by the New Orleans States newspaper, we see one example of breaking gender norms through the carnival king of Rex wearing pink tights for a carnival parade. Pink is notoriously known as a more feminine color, and during this era it was seen as such. However, in this article, it mentions how the Carnival King of Rex in New Orleans had no hesitation to wear a funky costume consisting of neon pink tights, while a Chicago Mardi Gras King refused to wear them. However, the Chicago Carnival committee insisted he wore them. In the article, the author quotes “the tights win out and must be worn or he will not look like Rex.” (page 1) By saying this, it is shown how central expressive fashion such as men wearing pink tights is to the spirit of New Orleans’ Carnival.  This shows the nature of costumes at New Orleans Mardi Gras, and how members of carnival in groups such as Rex were willing to wear outlandish and unique costumes, even if they broke male gender-norms, like in the case of the pink tights.

Cartoon, New Orleans Item, February 3, 1921

Women’s costumes were a major part of the liberating and revolutionary fashion of Mardi Gras during 1921. Women in Promiscuous outfits as described and in short, less restricting dresses certainly countered the prevailing image of women being “prim and proper.” In the image below taken by John T. Mendes in 1921, entitled “Three Girl Maskers on Mardi Gras”, you can see the idea of costumes being described as “promiscuous maskers.” The girls depicted in this picture, seemingly young, unmarried women, are wearing short dresses just above the knee, socks halfway across their legs, and are adorned with plenty of jewelry. The girl farthest to the left even has her hair all the way down, which was something seen as distasteful and scandalous in decades prior to the ‘20s. These three girls, posed on the heart of Canal Street, demonstrate raw examples of women and the emerging fashion they were wearing during Mardi Gras of 1921.  

Mendes, John T. Three Girl Maskers on Mardi Gras. February 8, 1921. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library.

Another 1921 Mendes photograph of fashion at the time depicts three young girls in costume at a carnival parade on Saint Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras day. Although children’s fashion is more playful than adult fashions, these costumes are also modern. For example, the little girl on the left is depicted in an outfit with pants which were off limits for women in prior decades. Likewise, the little girl on the far right is wearing a much shorter dress than those seen in the past, coming far above her knees.

Mendes, John T. Three Little Girls. February 8, 1921. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library.

Racialized costumes were also quite popular with white New Orleanians of this era. Indeed,While researching the fashion and costumes of Mardi Gras during this era, it is impossible to not come upon an article where white costume designers are attempting to appropriate or make fun of other cultures in costume form. In the most popular New Orleans newspaper at the time, The Times-Picayune, advertisements by costume manufacturers such as Mayer Israel were shown advertising costumes such as “Indian Suits” and “Chinese Suits”. A trend for white people celebrating Mardi Gras at this time was to replicate the costumes of other cultures. This is hypocritical, as white people celebrated and partied in these costumes mocking other cultures, but poked fun at the members of these cultures celebrating in their traditional garbs. 

Sadly, black-face ran rampant in the costumes during this era, and can be seen in numerous different photos from this period. For example, in a photograph by John T. Mendes, taken in 1921, you can see a group of males in black-face and grass skirts. One of the males in the picture is holding a sign that says “Hula Hulas.” Today we would see this as a crude example of cultural appropriation but this photo reveals how during this era how widely accepted it was.. 

Mendes, John T. Mardi Gras Maskers. February 8, 1921. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library.

Endnotes:

  1. Times-Picayune, 1921, p. 3. America’s News – Historical and Current,
  1. New Orleans States, 6 Feb. 1921, p. 12. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current.
  1. Times-Picayune, 4 Feb. 1921, p. 13. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current.
  1. New Orleans States, 1 Feb. 1921, p. 1. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current.
  1. Mendes, John T. Mardi Gras Maskers. February 8, 1921. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library.
  1. Mendes, John T. Three Little Girls. February 8, 1921. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library.
  1. Mendes, John T. Three Girl Maskers on Mardi Gras. February 8, 1921. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Digital Library.

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