Thursday, March 5, 2015

Adventures of a Mardi Gras Muse

I've always loved the energy of New Orleans, it's a place of traditions and culture unlike anywhere else, embodied by the Mardi Gras parade, a real spectacle of colors, costumes, and characters. This year, my good friend Leigh Berner took part in the parade, joining an all-womens parade called Muses... Leigh shared her experience and awesome shoes with Melange Mode:

Leigh, as a Muse
This year I was invited to ride in the Krewe of Muses parade with my friend during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  I jumped at the chance to participate in this wonderful and unique experience.  For those who are not familiar with Mardi Gras, there are many different carnival clubs, or “krewes”, that hold parades in different parts of the city.  Muses was formed only 15 years ago as an all-female krewe that “rolls” at night along the Uptown New Orleans route on the Thursday before Mardi Gras.  Muses has quickly become one of the most popular parades due to its fun, girly themes and fabulous throws, above all reigns the coveted “glitter shoes”…more on these below!  Muses has also become highly popular to join with extremely long waiting lists.  I was able to ride as a “guest” with my friend Katie by filling in for her sister who decided not to ride this year.  Katie has a group of friends and family members who have been riding together in Muses for years-- I had been dying to try it out and was absolutely delighted when she invited me to ride with them.  Needless to say the experience was exceptional, which I shall describe in detail:

These are actual women’s shoes that Muses riders decorate and throw to the crowds during the parade.  They were started as a homage to the famous painted and glittered coconuts that are thrown by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a famous older Mardi Gras krewe.  Each shoe is unique, and they have by far become one of the most coveted throws of Mardi Gras!

So here is the deal with the making of the glitter shoes.  They are completely voluntary, each rider may make as many shoes as they like.  There are no creative restrictions as long as there is either the word “Muses” or the letter “M” somewhere on the shoe, and the year of the parade.  Some people get truly creative with the shoes, simply google them or go to the Muses website to see all sorts of pictures.  Here are a few cool examples from the Krewe of Muses website:

And here are a few gorgeous ones made this year by my fellow rider Traci:

One can see how these have become THE throw of Mardi Gras, who wouldn’t want one of these beauties?  Some are really works of art.

Many Muses friends get together for “glittering parties” and make the shoes together.  Though I’m from New Orleans, I live in Los Angeles now and so did not have any Muses gals to team up with.  Luckily, my good friend Anne got into the spirit and helped me make them.   We had a lot of fun doing it…with the help of mimosas!  So while many Muses will make every one of their shoes different, I went for the more streamlined method of coming up with one design for all of my shoes. I decided to go with a traditional Mardi Gras theme of purple, green and gold with a carnival mask on the toe. Furthermore, I “cheated” a bit by purchasing yellow high heels that already had iridescent glitter on the body to cut down on time, but Anne and I personally glittered the insides and soles ourselves. Here are some photos of the assembly process:


Modesty aside, I personally think they turned out fabulous!  I shipped the shoes to New Orleans and finished them with my mom once I was in town.  It was her idea to mount the shoes on plastic plates and wrap them in purple netting as stylish packaging, which was adorable:

All in all, the process was fun.  However, you have to become very comfortable and dexterous with glitter and glue!

The much anticipated day of the parade arrived, and we started early.  About ten girlfriends who all ride on the same float met at the home one of the girls to get ready at around 9:00 am.  Breakfast and mimosas were served ☺ Our costumes, wigs and headpieces were provided. We helped each other with our makeup, which, not surprisingly, involves more GLITTER!  Though the costumes, wigs and headpieces were all pre-made by float members and were the required “uniform” for the float, makeup is a personal choice. As our wigs were blue and costumes gold, we decided to go with gold and blue glitter on the eyes and false eyelashes with rhinestones.  It doesn’t show up well in the pictures, but we also have glitter on our lips…that was interesting, but the effect was worth it. On a side note, it has been two weeks since the parade and I am still finding glitter around my lashes.  Beauty requires sacrifice and in the case of Muses, it must be embraced!  

Riders can also get creative with anything from the “waist-down”, as you can only be seen from the waist up on a float.  As you can see, everyone’s shoes and tights are different.  I went with some cute sequined high top sneaker (Sketchers, I think) for glamour and comfort.  Also please note our awesome fanny packs…these babies were a must to keep your phone and valuables secure for the entire day of parading, it gets too chaotic on the float to bring a purse.  Many of the girls have fancy sequined ones, I sported a hot pink number.  I must say the fanny pack was one of my favorite purchases, and I’ll even admit that I donned this for other parades I attended during Mardi Gras.  I kind of wish they were acceptable to wear out and about in normal circumstances, the hands-free element is so, well, freeing! ;)

After getting ready, we took cabs down to the French Quarter to have brunch at this lovely restaurant on Jackson Square called Tableau with other ladies from our float.  This was a blast, walking around the Quarter in our costumes we were constantly stopped by people who wanted to take our picture.  Since this was the day of the Muses parade, most people knew what we were dressed up for, it was a bit like being a mini-celebrity!  The brunch was lovely and it was hysterical to see all the women dressed up in matching costumes—this gives a fun and cheeky twist to “ladies who lunch”.  Here are a couple pics of Katie, her cousin Traci and I on the balcony of the restaurant.  On top of everything else, it was an absolutely gorgeous day!

After brunch, we were transported by shuttle to the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in the nearby Warehouse District for the Muses pre-party.  The pre-party was fantastic.  Live music, dancing, food and drinks were provided.  It was such a trip to see all the different wigs and headpieces that the different floats had come up with.  It was also exclusively Muses ladies only, except for the DJ and violin player providing the live music:

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu was also “allowed” in and canoodled with the Muses.  The party really embodied the spirit of Mardi Gras:  music, costumes, glitz, surrealism and irreverence wrapped up into one!  It’s the N’awlins take on joie de vivre, time to let yourself go and quit acting like a grownup for a bit!  Here are a few blurry pics (we were dancing!).  I apologize for the quality, but hopefully you will get the idea.  The girl with the daisy headpiece is my college friend Meg, who was on another float—it’s a fun contrast to see the different types of headpieces there were.

Near the end of the party, which was probably around 3:30 pm, they held a headpiece contest where a member from each float modeled their headpiece on the stage.  Once again, I wish I could have taken pictures, many of the headpieces were amazing, so elaborate and creative.  Every headpiece ties in with the theme of that particular float, and it is up to the members of each float to design and create the headpieces.  The judges were local New Orleans personages.  After the winners were selected, we were led in a group singing of the Muses anthem.  Then it was time to leave the CAC party and board the floats!

Mardi Gras krewes generally have a different overall theme every year, and then each of their floats have names and decor that tie in with that theme.  The float themes and decorations are often satirical and irreverent, all in good fun.  The 2015 theme for Muses was “Are You There God? It’s Us, Muses.” The floats portrayed different events and milestones in a girl’s life, starting with childhood through old age.  Our float’s name was “Playing Hooky”, which referenced ditching school and work.  With a tie-in to local New Orleans culture, the float depicted scenes of Jazz Fest and Friday lunches at Galatoire’s restaurant, which are venues that New Orleanians frequently “play hooky” from work to attend.  It may be kind of hard to see, but our headpieces were martini glasses decorated with pink ribbons in honor of the martinis one may drink whilst playing hooky!  We also had a blinking light inside the martini glass for some added bling at night.  Here are some pics of our float:

Once we boarded the float and lined up at the start of the parade Uptown, we unpacked and organized our throws which had been pre-loaded for us.  The Muses throws are really fun and adorable.  I was able to hang onto a few, which I took a “still life” picture of below.  Some of the cuter throws included shoe necklaces, bracelets, light up beads, a plush hair dryer, 15th anniversary commemorative pillow, a diary notebook with the title “My Secret Musings”, glitter tattoos, tote bags and glitter rubber ducks.

The line up before the parade started was fun as well, the calm before the storm.  Friends walked by to say hello, and it was entertaining to see all the other eclectic marching groups and bands that come between the floats hanging out waiting.  It was already a festive street party!  Also, random people starting approaching the floats begging for glitter shoes…I heard all kinds of stories!  Here are a few pics of people from around the line up to give you a taste of the ambiance.  The Elvis impersonators were a group called the “The Krewe of the Rolling Elvi”, who rode scooters.  The lovely ladies in pink are a fun local dance group called the “Pussyfooters”. There was also a group called the “Laissez Boys”, they rode on motorized lounge chairs in smoking jackets with cocktails and cigars, it was a riot!

And then the parade began.  First off I sadly have zero pictures during the ride, but will try to describe it colorfully.  All I can say is that it was a blur of time and fun that cannot entirely be described.  The rush you get throwing to the excited crowds is priceless, worth all the time, money and glittering involved!  It was a blast laughing and goofing off with Katie and the other riders as well, we’ll all have stories to tell for years to come.  Once we started to roll, we had to put on our masks.  An interesting fun fact that I learned from the experience is that it is an actual New Orleans city law that all parade float riders must remain masked for the duration of the parade.  You can actually be fined if you are caught unmasked by the local authorities.  I cannot even begin to imagine why this is a law, but I suspect it is something historical.  It was bizarre and endearing to me, naturally N’awlins!  During the course of the parade I was able to see several friends and family members, including my parents, sister, cousins, and my boyfriend Jean-Guillaume and friend Anne, who had both come in town from Los Angeles especially to see me ride!  They met up with me later on at the Muses after party.

Unsurprisingly, the crowds were absolutely nuts for the glitter heels.  Countless people begged and shouted for shoes, and many had made elaborate signs with slogans such as “Shoe me!”  When someone actually caught a shoe, the look on their face was fantastic, you would have thought they had just won the lottery!  I gave one of my shoes to an older lady in scrubs who looked like she had just walked over to catch the parade after work.  She was waving politely and not calling for a shoe.  I handed it to her and watched as we rolled away—she didn’t realize what it was for a second, and once she did the look on her face was wonderful.  That was my proudest “shoeing”. 

The most entertaining person I gave a shoe to was a young gentleman standing on a ladder.  He was donning stone washed cutoff jean shorts and some sort of construction worker reflective vest with no shirt on underneath.  He may have had a hard hat on as well, though my memory is fuzzy.  He was engaged in what can only be described as vigorous “twerking”.  This lad was working hard and shamelessly for a shoe, so I decided to reward him for his efforts.  I presented a shoe and pointed at it and then at him.  It took him a second to realize that I was offering him a shoe, and when it dawned on him the look on his face was something along the lines of, “Wait, that actually worked?”  He got off the ladder and came to the float to claim his prize.  He held it up to the sky and gazed in wonderment…it was amazing.

Many people also tried “bartering” for shoes by offering booze and other trading commodities.  In a moment of weakness I traded a shoe to another young gent for a cheap bottle of white wine.  I immediately regretted the trade and chalked it up to fatigue, resolving not to do so again.  However, not long afterwards I was offered what I would describe as an embellished champagne bottle.  I think the idea was that the bottle was decorated in the manner of the glitter shoes…the idea had some merit though the execution was not impressive. In fact it was fugly.  I initially rejected the offer.  However, he popped up again a few minutes later, quite the determined man.  I inquired as to what was in the bottle, and he assured me it was a fine champagne…mmmhh.  Breaking my earlier commitment to not barter shoes for gross and questionable booze, I traded the shoe.  Another moment of weakness, mea culpa.  However, the embellished bottle did provide entertainment later on. I put the bottle in Katie’s cooler where we had actual bottles of champagne for refreshments.  Later on I heard Katie yell something along the lines of, “What the hell is this?!”…she had not witnessed the earlier trade.  We couldn’t stop laughing about the bottle for the rest of the ride, and did take a couple pictures.  Behold (don’t ask about the pig, I honestly don’t remember where it came from or what became of it):

Finally the parade came to an end back where we started at the CAC, probably around 11 pm.  We deboarded the float and walked over to the big after party called “aMusement”.  The after party was, unsurprisingly, a blast!  Guests can be invited and the place was absolutely packed with people. Jean-Guillaume and Anne made it to the CAC and joined us.  Delicious food and drinks abounded and dancing commenced.  And to top it all, the special musical guest of the party was... Salt-N-Pepa!!!  Yes, THE Salt-N-Pepa!!  They were absolutely amazing.  They looked and sounded fantastic, playing all of their greatest hits and other song medleys to the delight of the crowd.  They also appeared to be having a genuinely good time playing at aMusement.  It was wonderful.  Here are a couple fuzzy pics, sorry for the quality:

I will spare everyone the couple photos taken of myself at the after-party.  Suffice to say I looked and was an official hot mess.  The night ended late, the way it should have.  And the next day, Jean-Guillaume, Anne and I treated ourselves to a recovery lunch at the fantastic restaurant Peche.  It doesn’t get much better than this:

So that was my first Muses experience, and it was glorious.  I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I think the next time would actually be even better since I would better know what to expect-- I could relax about the logistical aspects.  It was also such a special experience to share with my good friend Katie, who I have to give a huge thank you to for inviting me to join her!  It was incredibly cool to participate in Mardi Gras as a rider rather than a spectator.  I grew up in New Orleans going to the parades and I think really anyone who has ever experienced them wishes to try it out at some point.  I feel like I hit the jackpot having my first experience be with the fabulous Krewe of Muses and to be able to share the experience with friends.

Here’s one last photo I’ll leave you with.  After Mardi Gras, my sister and I were running errands in the Garden District and passed by the beautiful Lafayette Cemetery.  We decided to do a quick walk through and take some pictures…and I came across this beautiful grave (names blurred for the privacy of the family):

I don’t know this family or the story behind it (I wish I did), or who may have left these Muses shoes as remembrance gifts, but where else would you find something this unique and special?  I find it rather beautiful, haunting, sad and joyous, just like the city and culture of New Orleans.