Image, Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum. 

Kathryn Dyer (1904-1983) had a career change in the mid-1940s that brought us today to the colorful flamingoes pictured here from 1956. A civil servant for the state, Dyer decided that her heart and her true talents belonged in art. She began designing costumes. She did so especially for Venus, the first of the women’s Carnival organizations to parade.

A new exhibition celebrates all of the women who once rode in Venus from 1941 to 1992, as well as those involved with the fun and work of many other women’s krewes. Their chronology begins in 1896 when a group called Les Mysterieuses held its premier ball where women called on men to dance, and women, rather than men, masked.

Les Mysterieuses and others did not have a long existence, but in 1917 the Krewe of Iris was founded and it has continued until the present. The Louisiana State Museum exhibition, part of Nola4Women, especially honors this 100 year-old history.

Iris began parading in 1959, joining Venus on the streets of the city. Following this event came others, notably Shangri-La, Rhea, Cleopatra, and Isis; the latter two still parade today. The exhibition also takes us through the recent past with the founding of Muses, Nyx, and Femme Fatale.

Curator of Costumes and Textiles Wayne Phillips and Historian Karen Leathem worked with Exhibition Designer Maria Burns to shape the magnificent display of costumes, memorabilia, and photographs. The State Museum is one among only some one hundred collections of costumes in the world. Both Phillips and Leathem have worked on the history of Carnival for over thirty years. Phillips felt most enlivened by the dedication of the women Carnival krewe leaders and the designers who worked with them. Iris has had longevity among its ranks with only four captains during its one hundred years. Three of them came from the same family. Iris also has had the same Carnival designer, Carter Church, for over fifty years.

Leathem noted that women’s krewes were often Carnival changemakers beyond breaking rules across the genders. In 1949, for example, Iris’s ball was the first to be televised. Today the women’s Carnival krewes support one another, often having communal gatherings where glitter, glue, and feathers are shared in the decorating of shoes, purses, and other throws. These events break down some of the secrecy that has long characterized Mardi Gras.

At the same time, most women Carnival krewes also have been determined to keep their membership solely women. As one sign carried for a 1992 City Council discussion of race and gender in Carnival, “No penis in Venus.” The krewe of Muses has encouraged the creation of other women groups within the whole structure of parading. Many new marching groups have emerged. And in 2014, Muses featured the first female torch carriers, the Glambeaux.

The flamingo costumes here suggest some of the ways that Carnival enabled artists like Dyer to make a living. Most designs are drawn on heavy papers and are executed in watercolor, so one has a sense of both the permanence and ephemerality of the processions on the streets and the dancing at the balls. The watercolor medium also shows how artists followed in the traditions of those who designed for theaters, operas and dance performances around the world.

Today, Kathryn Dyer would be glad to see her vibrant colors and her fanciful imagination on display. And we think she would be glad to see the exhibition itself revealing so many wonders of the city’s women clothed and cloaked in glitter, feathers, satin, and beads.