The participants in the Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations in Southwest Louisiana dress in elaborate costumes, allowing them to conceal their identities and get into character while performing comic routines and antics that they may otherwise be reluctant to do. These costumes include masks and "capuchons," which are tall, cone-shaped caps.
Rural Mardi Gras: Respecting the Unexpected with Carolyn Ware
It took a little time and a lot of clowning for Carolyn Ware to finally become a true “Mardi Gras.” Once she had that experience, though, she was hooked.
Ware, now an associate professor of English at LSU, was a graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania working on a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH, grant in Tee Mamou-Iota, La., when she climbed a tree as part of the revelry surrounding the rural Mardi Gras tradition. She remembers bantering with “le capitaine” while one of the leader’s assistants sneaked up behind her and swatted her. The comical scene sealed her reputation as a bona fide member of the group.
This type of impromptu theater is the essence of rural “courirs de Mardi Gras,” or Mardi Gras runs, which are steeped in the traditions of Acadian culture. Unlike urban Mardi Gras celebrations, which are famous for public displays, parades and throws, rural Mardi Gras customs involve few participants from outside the small communities. This more intimate atmosphere attracted Ware even while she was in graduate school, and she became even more fascinated by the roles that women played in the Mardi Gras “associations” of Southwest Louisiana as she developed relationships with some of the people in the communities.
“I remember the first time I saw Iota, Louisiana,” Ware recalled recently. “It was spring, and the prairies stretched for miles, an endless sea of green, with beautiful blue skies, white egrets ... and the people – they were so gracious and hospitable. They didn’t know me at all, but they were willing to make me part of their community. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Southwest Louisiana.”
During that first project in Iota, Ware met some truly extraordinary people who inspired part of her future academic direction. One of the first was Larry Miller, a former Iota school principal who makes accordions and who was on the committee that worked to obtain the NEH grant.
The women, however, were the ones to capture her heart and imagination. Women like Suson Launey, who first encouraged Ware to participate in the “courir” and who still creates some of the remarkable masks that the Mardi Gras wear, and Debbie Andrus, who impressed Ware with her ability to improvise comic skits and repartee because of her deep understanding of the people in the community, made Ware want to devote more time to studying rural Mardi Gras customs.
One of the most obvious of these customs is masking. Masks are mandatory for “les Mardi Gras” in rural courirs, and the participants delight in creating costumes that range from whimsical to grotesque. Most courirs also require those who take part to wear “capuchons,” which are tall, cone-shaped caps. The capuchons also are routinely decorated. As a traditional component of the courir, costuming allows the participants to conceal their identities and get into character, while performing comic routines and antics that they may otherwise be reluctant to do. Also, these participants are traditionally male only.
Ware discovered, however, in the Louisiana communities of Tee Mamou, Basile and Eunice that the women had created their own courirs, an innovation that was novel for the region. Despite this break with cultural tradition, most of the women’s Mardi Gras associations still have male capitaines as their leaders. Ware made her debut as a Mardi Gras with one of these women’s associations.
One of the aspects of the women’s courirs that fascinates Ware is how these women move with relative ease from the domestic sphere of the home – sewing the costumes, designing the masks and using traditionally female decoration – into the outside, more masculine, area of the actual courir. Though the women use their domestic skills to create their costumes, the designs are still grotesque in the male tradition, often exaggerating body parts and reveling in bawdy innuendo. Still, women have put their own mark on the tradition. Ware pointed out that, even when the women used old tire treads to create masks, they also used domestic items – buttons, lace and the like – to add their own touches.
“Renée Frugé, one of the women in the Basile association, loved to create furry, wild, animalistic masks, but she would raid her mother’s sewing box for ribbons and rickrack to finish them,” Ware remembered. “And Suson Launey didn’t like the way the old masks, which were made from metal screen, chafed her face. So she created a needlepoint mask using a plastic grid. The next year, several other women in the run also had needlepoint masks. The masks became so popular, in fact, that the women started selling them, and a cottage industry arose.”
The women’s associations also reflect other domestic customs as well. For example, the women generally work in twos during the runs, and they are very careful not to frighten small children along the route. Also, the women are most interested in the family and friendship aspects of the run, looking out for each other, particularly the younger members of the courirs.
“The captain always carries a needle and thread and safety pins in case of rips and tears in the Mardi Gras’ costumes,” Ware elaborated. “The private world comes into the public festival, and there’s some maternal stuff going on.”
Ware’s fascination with the courirs in Southwest Louisiana led her to co-author a book, “Cajun Mardi Gras Masks,” with Carl Lindahl in 1997, and to write “Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward,” which was published by Illinois University Press in 2007. She has also written numerous articles and presented many presentations on rural Mardi Gras traditions and customs, particularly on costuming and masking. Eventually, she would like to put together an edited book on women’s culture in South Louisiana.
In addition to Cajun Mardi Gras customs, Ware is also interested in the folklife of rural Louisiana in general. She is currently working on a book about Plaquemines Parish and its culture and people. In particular, she has been documenting the Croatian community there, as well as the African-American culture and Cajun French foodways. Also, Ware, who once worked as a veterinarian’s assistant, has recently begun to examine the expressive culture of veterinarians, looking closely at and documenting the slang, stories and practical jokes that veterinarians use.
Benda Macon | Assoc. Dir.| College of Arts & Sciences