"Something About Being Anonymous": The New Orleans Mardi Gras Mask Market

By Frank de Caro


In an on-line review of the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras Mask Market the travel site Lonely Planet notes: "The main point of Mardi Gras is to wear a mask." And another Web site, in laying out information about Mardi Gras "supplies," asks: "Who can imagine Mardi Gras without masks?" (; Both statement and rhetorical question suggest assumptions that are not exactly literally true. The wearing of masks is not a universal practice at Mardi Gras, and masks certainly are not the central point of the occasion. Nonetheless, masks are of considerable importance to this festival event, although their use is a complicated thing, and they do not play a single, simple role. Of course the occasion, based in an aesthetic of fantasy and play, emphasizes the acting out of non-normal roles and that idea encourages participants to assume fantasy identities and to disguise usual identities through costuming. Locally in New Orleans costuming is indeed called masking (though assuming a costume does not necessarily include the donning of a mask on the face). Those who ride floats in the major Mardi Gras parades generally wear masks, and the rules of their organizations ("krewes") generally require that they do so, an aspect of the role of secrecy in Mardi Gras organizations. Yet the great majority of street revelers, who attend the parades, do not put on masks (and probably make little attempt to actually costume at all, though they may alter their normal modes of dress1). At Mardi Gras balls krewe members in costume will wear masks, but members and guests in only formal dress will not. In general many Mardi Gras participants do, however, enjoy donning masks for some roles and occasions and think it important to do so. As mask maker Ann Guccione notes (2011), there is "something about being anonymous" which has obvious appeal at Mardi Gras; even if participants are not engaging in behavior for which they prefer not to expose their identities, wearing a mask "takes the stress out. " Guccione likes to retell the story told her by a New Orleans Mardi Gras participant. Years ago he went to a ball and danced all night with a wonderful partner who was masked and whose identity he has never known; he never forgot the experience, clearly intrigued by the anonymity and mystery. Certainly New Orleanians understand the appeal and significance of masks, even if individually they do not necessarily wear a mask for Mardi Gras or if a mask is worn only for some forms of participation. In noting the difference between showing masks at crafts fairs elsewhere and at the Mask Market, Oregon mask maker Diane Trapp says that those who run other crafts fairs often don't seem to understand the significance of masks, whereas New Orleans "gets it" (Trapp 2011).

Mardi Gras decorations on a New Orleans house.

If the wearing of masks on Mardi Gras occasions is hardly universal and the practice varies, dependent on levels and kinds of participation in the festival, the use of masks at Mardi Gras is widespread, and it is not difficult to see how the mask becomes of symbolic significance such that commentators might offhandedly want to present it as the central element. Transformation of identity is a central element in Carnival, and disguising the face is a key method of transforming identity. Also, Mardi Gras krewes have enjoyed maintaining an element of secrecy (membership in groups may be kept secret; so may the identity of the kings of certain groups, for example, and members of Mardi Gras Indian groups keep their costumes secret until Mardi Gras morning), and a mask certainly helps to maintain such secrecy, enabling people to appear in public without revealing who they are, possibly performing actions with which they would not want personally to be identified. 2 The mask easily becomes emblematic of transformation, and disguise and secrecy come to be thought of as symbolic of the very institution of Carnival and the practices that are part of it. Masks, along with the beads which are thrown from floats at Mardi Gras parades, become staples of the wares sold by the New Orleans shops which cater to tourists seeking souvenirs characteristic of the Crescent City and its iconic Mardi Gras occasion. Cardboard decorations shaped to look like masks and fashioned in the traditional Mardi Gras colors or various plastic masks may be an element in locals' Mardi Gras displays in homes, on doors, or on French Quarter balconies; or New Orleans businesses may similarly put up mask-evoking decorations (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Mardi Gras mask decorations displayed on a New Orleans balcony in 2011. Photo by Rosan Augusta Jordan.

Folklorists, anthropologists and historians who have commented on New Orleans Mardi Gras have in fact paid little attention to the ethnography of the mask. Who dons a mask, when and exactly why they do so, how people obtain masks and exactly how they think of them are questions that have largely gone unaddressed, possibly because the basic reasons for wearing masks seem obvious. Indeed, the relatively small amount of attention that has been given to Louisiana Mardi Gras masks has been given to those used for the country form of the celebration maintained by the Cajuns and Creoles who live well west of the Big Easy. Ronnie Roshto has written specifically about the Cajun mask makers Georgie and Allen Manuel (1992), while Carl Lindahl and Carolyn Ware (1997) take a broader view, looking at masks and over a half dozen mask makers in the Cajun communities of Basile and Tee Mamou. Lindahl and Ware consider such issues as how masks enable participants to assume roles, such as that of the sauvage and the beggar (the mask, they say, confers "the freedom. . .to create a new identity" and they note "the dramatic way in which the wearer brings ("the mask 'to life'" [56]), and their discussion of masks is integrated into a discussion of how the Cajun Mardi Gras plays out, although their primary concern is the masks themselves, including their history and the materials of their construction. Commentators on Cajun Mardi Gras as a whole have sometimes made observations about the masks. For example, Barry Ancelet (1989) comments generally on the use of masks, noting that they confer anonymity, "provide an opportunity to shed inhibitions and to take on roles for the day" (2). They may also, he says, "preserve ancient parodies. . .[and] represent contemporary parodies, reflecting current political and economic realities as well as media-driven preoccupations" (3-4), that is, by expressing something about the role being assumed by a participant. Carolyn Ware (2007) notes that some communities require hand-made masks for their Mardi Gras "runs," stimulating a turn toward mask-making by local women. Ware also writes of women running Mardi Gras as having somewhat different requirements for their masks than do the men (for example, the more traditional masks made of painted wire screen mesh were thought by women to be too uncomfortable, leading to needlepoint masks). According to Ware, mask styles differ by community also ("The lavish decoration of a typical Tee Mamou mask. . . would seem over the top in Basile" [2007: 102]), and some participants have preferred commercially made rubber masks. The emphasis in the literature, although social aspects of masking have not been ignored, has been upon masks as folk objects, as artifacts, and upon mask makers (Lindahl and Ware was actually published as part of a series on folk art and folk artists, a fact which probably shaped the perspectives taken by these authors).

The New Orleans Mardi Gras Mask Market, though an event of some local significance and some significance in the mask making community (Oregon mask maker Monica Roxburgh says there is "nothing else like it," calling it "unique" [2011]), is a minor element in the larger festival season of Carnival. 3 It is a known but somewhat limited source for masks actually used in costuming for the celebration of Mardi Gras, and to look at it here does not add much to our understanding of the social aspects of the use of masks. The Market does, however, provide a point of focus for the symbolic connection between Mardi Gras and masks, and the placement of an organized mask sale within the Mardi Gras time frame not only suggests that symbolic connection but provides another event, in addition to parades, parties and processions, which is part of the celebration. To look at it does add to our knowledge of the complexity of ways in which people participate in Mardi Gras, then. And it can serve as a focus for considering the mask as artifact within the New Orleans context of artists and craftspeople who fashion masks (and whose aesthetics, techniques, styles and perspectives differ considerably from those who make masks for the Cajun form of the celebration).

The Mask Market was established in 1982 by mask maker Mike Stark, who had also founded the New Orleans Mask Makers Guild. Stark died in 1998, and it is impossible to now establish his precise motives, but evidently he sought to increase the possibilities for making New Orleans masks known and for marketing them. Stark, who was among other things a Baptist minister and a fixture of the French Quarter scene, had a penchant for activism and organizing and was the founder of the Head Clinic, which he established to provide services to the hippies who were then filling the Quarter. During the 1984 world's fair he operated a shop called the Exposed Flea, just outside the fair's perimeter, and later with a young business partner, Ann Guccione, and others he owned a mask shop in the French Quarter, the Little Shop of Fantasy. Earlier he had been part of the group of Quarter bohemians who gravitated around Preservation Hall, where he worked the door, and he operated a Bourbon Street shop that sold sandals and other items. "He loved to dress up," according to Jo Ann Clevenger (2011) in whose Decatur Street costume shop (at the time a central place to buy old costumes) Stark also worked. Clevenger got him started on making masks (most of what was available at the time were cheap imports, and she saw the possibilities for locally produced masks), and he got into the craft, bringing to it his aesthetic sense and his manual skills. 4 He used to rent space for the corporation which runs the historic French Market, and at one point he came to a director of the French Market suggesting an event at which hand-made masks would be sold (McCorkle 2011).

Figure 2. Signs direct visitors to the Mardi Gras Mask Market. Photo by Rosan Augusta Jordan.

The French Market today regularly produces various events held on its site which aim to draw people to the place and to serve as a means of promoting its presence and its associated merchants, but the Mask Market suggested by Stark was one of the first such events attempted. Stark provided the staff to run the event as well as the idea of having it, and for years the Mask Market was held in the Dutch Alley area of the French Market (which Stark suggested as being, at the time, underused), although more recently it has been shifted to the Farmers Market area, near the current Flea Market. In earlier years as many as twenty-five or thirty vendors attended, although in recent times the number has been closer to fourteen or fifteen. Many vendors, who are usually the mask makers themselves, are from the New Orleans area, although the Mask Market attracts vendors from all over the country. Although Stark passed away and the Mask Makers Guild has ceased to be active, 5 the French Market has continued to produce the Mask Market as an annual event. It stretches over several days, over the weekend just before Mardi Gras, with Saturday being its most active day, according to Rosalind McCorkle (2011), the French Market official who has run the Mask Market in recent years. Mask makers apply to be included, submitting photographs of their work, and the French Market charges each included vendor a fee and supplies signage and a set-up which includes a table with skirting and chairs as well as electricity. Because the Mask Market is more than just a sale but a French Market event, the French Market also arranges for concurrent musical performances; the aim is to present music which is associated with Mardi Gras and New Orleans, notably that performed by Mardi Gras Indian groups and brass bands.

Figure 3. Booths at the 2011 Mardi Gras Mask Market. Photo by Rosan Augusta Jordan.

In 2011 the Mask Market was scheduled to run from Friday, March 4, through Monday, March 7, that is the day before Mardi Gras, popularly called Lundi Gras. March 4 turned out to be a rainy day, slowing down the market's progress, but on the morning of the 4th a line of nearly twenty white marquees had been set up (figures 2, 3), stretching across the Mask Market area in the open space between the French Market structure and French Market Place, beyond which are a number of permanent businesses. Hand-made signs in Mardi Gras colors with mask images identified individual mask makers/vendors (although some of these were partially obscured by marquee flaps), and these individuals were sitting behind the tables provided by the French Market, setting up display areas (Figure 4), or setting out their wares. Some vendors used wire racks on which masks could be hung; others had free-standing face-like forms on which masks could be fitted (Figure 5). The marquees provided some protection from the intermittent rain, although gusts of wind accompanying the wet weather added a complication to the displaying of masks, which tended to be caught by the breezes if so placed. The winds also taxed the canvas sides of the marquees, and individual mask makers were rueful if philosophical about the weather.

Figure 4. Vendors set up a display at the Mardi Gras Mask Market. Photo by Rosan Augusta Jordan.

According to mask maker Carl Trapani of Metairie (2011), Fridays of the market tend to be "mellow," Saturdays the busiest, Sundays a mixture of mellow and busy; then on Monday mask buyers tend to become slightly frantic as they rush to make purchases that have been put off. In 2011 the inclement weather affected the progress of the Mask Market, however. On March 5, strong thunder storms swept through New Orleans. Although the earlier hours of the market produced customers, the arriving storms emptied the area of tourists and others, and Saturday proved to be a poor day for the mask vendors, some of whom abandoned their stalls. It was not until Sunday, the 6th, that fine weather, if a little colder with some wind, dawned, and the market came alive with visitors looking at and for masks. The French Quarter was, in general, humming with Mardi Gras visitors, and the energy that people and the Mardi Gras spirit generate was evident. In addition to filling eateries, a variety of shops, the streets, and Jackson Square (with its psychics and palm and tarot readers much in evidence) people thronged to the French Market and the Farmers Market area with its popular Flea Market and to the nearby Mask Market itself. The marquees of the mask makers seemed to attract considerable attention and a number of people seemed to be interested in purchasing masks, trying them on and seeking information and advice from the vendors. The music stage had been set up beyond the actual Mask Market area, but the music (produced by a brass band at the time of the author's visit) was sufficiently loud to permeate both the Mask Market and Flea Market. The Mask Market displayed a combination, then, of festival, commercial venue, and art and craft exhibition, tied into the Mardi Gras occasion.

Figure 5. Masks at the 2011 Mardi Gras Mask Market. Photo by Rosan Augusta Jordan.

Focusing on the Mask Market does offer an opportunity for looking at the mask makers of New Orleans (and those mask craftspeople who come to New Orleans for the occasion, for whom Mardi Gras usually does not exist in their home territories) and to consider their work at least briefly. Of course New Orleans masks are quite different from those of the Cajuns, stemming less from a folk tradition in which (at least until recently) Mardi Gras participants themselves made their masks, using painted screen wire, 6 more from a tradition of specialist artists/artisans who make masks for others, using a variety of materials. Whereas the tradition of painted screen masks evidently goes back to the nineteenth century (Lindahl and Ware 1997:30, 34; the oldest surviving mask they identify and depict was made around 1910), the contemporary mask making tradition in New Orleans has its roots no further back than the mid-1970s (although of course the use of masks for New Orleans Carnival is much older, and some New Orleanians made their own masks in times past, although little published information about this is currently available). It was then that Mike Stark began making masks (and probably he had no knowledge of Cajun or other wire screen masks). He was aided by the availability of the glue gun (which made decorating, previously requiring sewing abilities, easier; he employed the material used medically for making casts, a sort of gauze which will harden when wet and shaped, for his basic shapes), and he particularly enjoyed using feathers for decoration. Probably he was influenced by theatrical and operatic masks (he also did some theatrical costuming and made masks for theatrical productions), and those influences certainly have been important to mask makers generally. Portland mask maker Monica Roxburgh (2011) cites theatrical influences, as well as fantasy-inspired ones, while another Portland maker, Diane Trapp (2011), speaks of drawing her animal-inspired masks and other ideas from her involvement in the theatre (she also cites the influence of Pacific Northwest Native American masks and a local preponderance of vampire and goth interest and aesthetics). The influence of the well-known and highly-regarded Carnival masks of Venice has also been a factor.

Involvement in mask making in New Orleans may stem from a larger involvement in the Carnival experience or even from generational participation in mask making or in other aspects of Carnival. For example, New Orleans native Carl Trapani cites his mother's love of Carnival as the ultimate origin for his mask making activities. She loved taking him and other kids to Carnival parades and taught him, he says, how to enjoy the season. His more immediate influence came later, in 1985, when a cousin, who was going to a Mardi Gras ball, told Trapani that he needed a mask. Being a "creative person, into costuming," Trapani offered to make one, which he did. Then he found that he "couldn't make just one" and continued to produce more, and he has appeared at the Mask Market for a number of years, though he also works with Mardi Gras krewes on their masks. He himself rides in the suburban krewe of Caesar and has helped to modify their krewe masks, and he also belongs to a group that marches with Krewe du Vieux and whose headdresses he works on. Trapani's talent resides primarily in his abilities as a decorator of masks, and he starts with a basic, pre-made plastic mask that he then proceeds to decorate with various materials, going for "affordable" rather than expensive. He is also a talented salesman (in the past he has worked in corporate sales), and he enjoys working with customers at the Mask Market to help them find a mask in the context of a total Mardi Gras look. He will ask visitors if they're looking for a costume, and he will have accessories which can complement a mask. He can help someone to dress for Mardi Gras from proverbial head to toe, trying to work with who they see themselves as (some, unsurprisingly, are more "daring" than others). Though buyers of masks may either wear them or display them as art objects (and, of course, it is virtually impossible for mask makers to know how, ultimately, a buyer will use a mask), Trapani's masks are certainly widely worn, partly because they are at the lower end of the mask price range, partly because he himself is so into costuming. He says he has seen his masks in everything from porn films to network TV shows (Trapani 2011), and he has noticed, in an annually produced video, his masks being used by women "flashing" their breasts on Bourbon Street to disguise their identities; in the 1980s a national ABC television show doing a "swinger segment" featured Tripani and his masks, a fact which certainly suggests that New Orleans masks are sometimes indeed used to allow maskers to participate in activities for which they seek to hide their identities.

Ann Guccione, who has been at the center of New Orleans mask making for many years, like Trapani comes from a family which participated in Carnival, and today she makes masks in collaboration with her sister Laura. She also traces some of her involvement in the craft to the work her aunt did as a milliner; not only was her aunt a craftsperson but, Guccione says, this family history guaranteed a familiarity with the feathers her aunt used for hats and which are an important element in many Mardi Gras masks. As a young teenager from Metairie Guccione loved going to the French Quarter, and she eventually met Mike Stark, who had suffered a stroke and whose rehab nurse at Charity Hospital Guccione's mother was. Guccione got into mask making through this association, though she would also study with other makers. Stark had already started his mask shop, the Little Shop of Fantasy, and she joined him as one of his partners (she refers to herself as Stark's "little kid business partner"), doing paperwork for the business he was no longer able to do and running the shop on Dumaine Street. They sold not only Stark's masks but those of a number of other makers as well, including makers from other parts of the country, particularly Portland, Oregon, another mask making center. Guccione generally uses a base mask which she fashions from casting material she gets from a medical supply company or from buckram; this base she decorates with feathers, and she is primarily known for her feather masks. The Little Shop of Fantasy, like many things, came to an end with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but Guccione continues to maintain a studio in Bywater and sells her masks and those of others on the Internet as well as at the Mask Market. Her work is also carried by the Mask Gallery, a Royal Street establishment (figure 6) run by mask maker Massoud Dalilli, who does not show at the Mask Market because he has a permanent location in the French Quarter. (Dalilli makes leather masks, using heavy molds to fashion them on, and in addition to his own and Guccione's masks, sells those of John Flemming and others. Flemming's masks are widely regarded by other mask makers as being particularly fine.)

Figure 6. The Mask Gallery on Royal Street. Photo by Rosan Augusta Jordan.

Susan Magliato regards herself as "the new kid on the block," having been a mask maker for only a few years. At one time she helped Carl Trapani decorate his masks but had a desire to work with leather, another major mask making material, and after studying with Jeff Semmerling of Chicago, she works in leather today, out of a studio/residence in the Riverbend neighborhood. Although mask makers come from varying backgrounds (and have become mask makers through various channels), Magliato did not come to it through other arts. Though she works on masks year round, she is also employed in electron microscopy at Tulane Medical Center (and, indeed, many mask makers have other employment, masks not generally yielding sufficient income for full-time employment).

In addition to fashioning masks themselves Magliato also makes shadowboxes in which her masks become part of a display unit, and indeed the artistic masks made by various makers may come to be used as art objects put on display rather than (or in addition to) being worn. Ann Guccione speculates that the use of masks is "50/50" wearing and display, and other makers agree, although of course most makers have limited knowledge of how buyers actually use their masks once they take the masks away. Kurt Salla (who alternates living in Illinois and in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and who has come to the Mask Market for many years) is a metal artist who makes his masks out of metal. As such, though they can be used to disguise a face (he attaches many of them to sticks, which a masker can use to hold the mask to the face or lower it; this is, of course, an old, established mode of using a mask, a mode which may be familiar to some people from films set in historical periods), they are more likely to be used for display, metal being potentially difficult to wear. Very elaborate masks may be uncomfortable to wear, despite being very beautiful to behold (a factor which may lead to their being collected for display rather than worn). Susan Magliato tries on all her creations to test them for comfort, and when her masks are fitted into her shadow boxes, this is done in such a way as to allow for easy removal for other use, a practice that suggests the dual purpose for contemporary masks, both wearing and display as art.

Although Mardi Gras clearly inspires masks and although the days leading up to Mardi Gras clearly are a particularly appropriate time for the selling of masks, New Orleans mask makers produce masks for purposes other than sale at the Mardi Gras Market, and they use other venues for selling. The regular art markets at Palmer Park and in the Bywater neighborhood (both relatively new developments, the Bywater market having in fact 1een recently discontinued after a short existence) were mentioned by mask makers as places where they show their wares. Shops in the Quarter, such as Dalilli's Mask Gallery and Maskarade or shops which sell a variety of New Orleans-themed goods, provide other outlets. Ann Guccione has gone as far afield as Florida, where she sold masks at a benefit sale, in fact a masquerade event, for the Orlando Opera. Guccione has produced masks and props for the film companies which have come into New Orleans in recent years in response to the tax credits established by the State of Louisiana to promote the film industry here, and for proms and weddings, while mask makers she has represented have produced masks for Cirque du Soleil. Magliato said she would create masks for a convention of Rotarians in May of 2011, and she expected to produce as many as 300 masks for them. At one time a florist used Carl Trapani's masks as centerpieces for floral designs, and his have been used in department store fashion shows (including masks given away to attendees). For one wedding the bridal attendants carried his masks instead of bouquets, and he works with conventions (for which he can provide complete costuming) and directly with Mardi Gras krewes who need masks. He is the costume chairman for a group that marches in the Krewe du Vieux parade, helping the members make their headdresses, and Guccione fashions headdresses for one float in the Muses parade (Muses presents awards for best headdresses) and worked with one krewe captain on his fine mask. She also makes hats for Chris Owens's famed French Quarter Easter parade (harking back to an early influence in her mask making, her aunt's millinery business). Noted mask maker John Flemming also produces purses and jewelry, Kurt Salla brings jewelry (including some which are miniature masks) to the Mask Market, and other Mask Market vendors show jewelry as well as masks. Mike Stark particularly enjoyed going to the annual Fantasy Fest in Key West to sell, and mask makers mentioned Renaissance fairs as another outlet for their creations.

New Orleans mask makers generally do not appear at the Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) and generally do not see this as a welcoming venue for them, partly because Jazz Fest provides only a limited amount of space for craftspeople from the entire Gulf Coast region. The Mask Market, however, is generally viewed favorably and has served as a good venue for many of the vendors, despite relatively high fees (currently $500.00) charged for booth space. The shifting of the Mask Market from the Dutch Alley area of the French Market, where the Mask Market originated and where it was held for a number of years, to space near the Flea Market area has occasioned some controversy among the mask makers. Many preferred the former Dutch Alley space, and some dislike being positioned near the Flea Market, where some booths sell cheap, mass-produced masks (what one local mask maker refers to as the "garbage in the Flea Market"), thus confusing potential customers as to the distinction between the artistry of hand-made masks and the quality of the less interesting, cheaper products (often imported from China and other countries noted for cheap mass production of goods). Some mask makers, however, are content with the new space or even prefer it.

Figure 7. Maskarade is a St. Ann Street shop. Photo by Rosan Augusta Jordan.

Certainly the Mask Market has continued to attract not only local mask makers but also those from other places. Diane Trapp, of Portland, Oregon, for example, has come for eighteen years, Portland like New Orleans being a mask making center. 7 Her mask making interest began because of her involvement with theatrical masks, and in addition to coming to the Mask Market, she has made masks for movies, Renaissance fairs and for fund raisers (masquerades as fund raisers having become increasingly popular, at least in the Portland area), and she teaches the use of stage makeup and wigs. Although she has made masks from latex and neoprene, her preferred material is papier m âch é, a material little used by New Orleans mask artists, although Trapp notes that this material in her masks appeals to New Orleanians generally because of their familiarity with its use in Mardi Gras floats. Another Portland mask maker, Monica Roxburgh, started using papier m âch é but gravitated to latex and neoprene (neoprene is a synthetic rubber, though it produces a semi-rigid mask more stable than the rubbery Halloween masks many are familiar with; it is an expensive material needing a lot of work, factors resulting in its use in higher-end masks, though Roxburgh herself tries to make masks across the price spectrum). Roxburgh, who first came to the Mask Market in 2002 or 2003, came to masks from her involvement in the arts; looking for a focus to her artistic endeavors she noticed the use of masks in the theatre and feels that masks brought a lot of her interests together. She thinks that the masks she sells in New Orleans (in 2011 she sold most of the masks she brought to the Market, as did many of the other mask makers) are used for costuming, although some collectors also buy. Both Trapp and Roxburgh also sell in New Orleans through Maskarade on St. Ann Street (figure 7), a shop which is not owned by a mask maker but sells those made by a number of people, and report that there is one store in Portland devoted to selling masks.

The Mardi Gras Mask Market, then, has been a unique institution, a quite specialized crafts fair where a product important to the New Orleans consciousness is highlighted once a year. That product, masks, plays an important role in the festival complex, Carnival, at the center of much New Orleans life. Although the masks worn at Mardi Gras (and the use of masks is a somewhat selective one) may be acquired through various sources, the Mask Market and the mask makers who participate are one such source and an important one, at least for those who value fine artistry in the masks they wear or collect or display. Because Carnival has become emblematic of New Orleans, tourists may also purchase masks, whether those finely made or those more cheaply mass produced, from various sources, including French Quarter shops, but because many visitors come to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, the Mask Market provides a source for their purchases and also provides a singular event showcasing an aspect of the Mardi Gras celebration.8


1. In a recent photo essay John Magill (2011) calls attention to the fact that at one time those who attended Mardi Gras parades "dressed up." In more recent years, of course, dress has tended to the informal, sometimes with special hats or other "festive" touches. The popularity of costuming has varied over the years, waxing and waning. Louisiana writer Lyle Saxon, who directed the folklore-centered Louisiana Writers' Project during the Depression years, tried to revive interest in Mardi Gras costuming in those same 1930s, believing that many of those who attended as street revelers had by that time lost interest in costumes. Saxon wrote: "I like everything about Carnival. But most of all I like the mask" (WYES-TV 2011). Whether by "the mask," he meant literally the wearing of a mask or merely costuming in general is unclear, probably the latter. The photographs in Magill, from the archives of the Historic New Orleans Collection, show costumed revelers over a period of time; many have their faces covered by masks, some do not.

2. A recent J. Peterman mail order catalog, offering "Carnival in Venice" masks for sale, makes the point: "When people put on masks. . .they give each other permission to do things that would otherwise be forbidden" (2011: 7).

3. Mardi Gras purists are forever pointing out that Mardi Gras is a single day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, whereas the related festivities preceding the day, though sometimes loosely referred to as the "Mardi Gras season," are properly called Carnival.

4. After his death Stark's friends commemorated his life with a party at Clevenger's celebrated restaurant, the Upperline.

5. In fact it may never have been very active. Current mask makers do not remember the Guild as having done very much.

6. Roshto (1992: 44) also includes a photograph of a wire screen mask from Belize, and wire screen masks are also used in Hatillo, Puerto Rico, in festivities which actually take place during the Christmas season, and elsewhere in the Caribbean for John Canoe festivities. Roshto (1992: 36-37) notes that wire masks made commercially in Europe were also widely sold in the later nineteenth century, and suggests that commercially made masks could have inspired home-made ones. In Puerto Rico, the masks are generally made by the participants (although costumes are made by seamstresses, whose work is given considerable attention and for whom there are costume competitions). It may be that these uses of screen represent polygenesis, wire screen as a material simply having become available at certain times (it was invented in the 1860s), and having had appeal as providing a vented material suitable for activity in warm climates as well as a surface paintable to provide disguise (the Baltimore tradition of painting window and door screens has received concerted attention; this usage is not, of course, meant to provide disguise but does indicate how wire screen provides a paintable surface; see Eff [1984]). There may, however, be a pan-Caribbean tradition of screen masks with one area having influenced development in others; certainly the Belizean mask Roshto illustrates looks quite similar to Cajun masks, although he points out some differences.

7. Why Portland should be a mask making center is an interesting question, as, unlike New Orleans, the city does not celebrate Carnival. Possibly this is so simply because Portland has attracted a number of artists (at one time certainly it was an inexpensive place to live) and that has inevitably meant at least a few mask makers, especially because of the vitality of local theatre and particularly puppetry. Diane Trapp suggests that the mask traditions of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest may also have influenced interest in mask making on the part of others.

8. In addition to the people noted in Sources with whom I conducted short interviews, I talked informally with a number of mask makers at the 2011 Mask Market, and Carl Trapani, Diane Trapp, and Ann Guccione were kind enough to contribute information and comments by e-mail. My thanks to all these individuals for their assistance.


Ancelet, Barry. 1989. "Capitaine, Voyage Ton Flag": The Traditional Cajun Country Mardi Gras. Photo essay by James Edmunds. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Clevenger, Jo Ann. 2011. Telephone interview with author. March 15, May 17.

Eff, Elaine. 1984. Painted Screens of Baltimore, Maryland: Decorative Folk Art, Past and Present. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Guccione, Ann. 2011. Interview with author. New Orleans. March 14.

Lindahl, Carl, and Carolyn Ware. 1997. Cajun Mardi Gras Masks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Magill, John. 2011. Capturing Carnival: Images of Carnival History. New Orleans February: 62-69.

Magliato, Susan. 2011. Telephone interview with author. March 10.

McCorkle, Rosalind J. 2011. Interview with author. New Orleans, January 25.

Peterman, J., Company. 2011. Owner's Manual No. 84. Lexington: J. Peterman Co.

Roshto, Ronnie. 1992. Georgie and Allen Manuel and Cajun Wire Screen Masks. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 7 (1991): 33-49.

Roxburgh, Monica. 2011. Telephone interview with author. May 8.

Trapani, Carl. 2011. Telephone interview with author. February 21.

Trapp, Diane. 2011. Telephone interview with author. May 5.

Ware, Carolyn E. 2007. Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

WYES-TV. 2011. Mardi Gras Stories. February 11 broadcast.

Frank de Caro is a folklorist in New Orleans. He taught folklore in the Louisiana State University Department of English until his retirement. This article first appeared in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 21, 2011.