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Feathers and Female Power: The Costumes of Carnival

A vibrant, skimpy ensemble worn at a Caribbean Carnival is so much more than a visual delight: “It’s a celebration of women’s glory in themselves.”

The blinged-out swimsuits and colorful plumage seen at Carribean Carnivals from London to New York to Toronto take months to complete and involve an industry of designers, seamstresses, feather workers and wire benders. The women who take part in this masquerade — “mas,” it’s called — have transformed a tradition rooted in Roman Catholicism and Black resistance to slavery into a performance of female empowerment, resistance and self-expression.

“It’s a celebration of women’s glory in themselves,” said Frances Henry, an anthropologist and co-editor of the book “Carnival is Woman.” And that goes for all women, said Natasha Marshall, a Brooklyn-based designer: “You can be plus size, and a triple-X, and look just as good as somebody that wears a size 5.”

Just a few days ago, we would have been among the thousands playing mas in Trinidad. But the pandemic has disrupted Carnival. “Covid has annihilated our festival in this historical way,” said Keisha Als, a Trinidadian designer.

I am a Times reporter who was born Black and female in Mobile, Ala., a former slave port that became part of the Underground Railroad. It is also home to the oldest Carnival in the United States.

Currents of colonialism and slavery that shaped life in the Caribbean also defined it in America. For me, playing mas is a way to connect with a larger diaspora of people who feel empowered by legacies of resistance. I know firsthand how transformative the costumes can be.

Since my first mas in 2015, I’ve returned yearly to cities like Baltimore and Kingston, Jamaica, to chip, pump and wine — movements of mas — among thousands of revelers. “People live a thousand lives,” we sang along to one of the year’s most popular soca tunes last February, “and never feel this free.” Carnival may be canceled this year, but the costumes are still telling stories.



A Living Fantasy

Carnival costumes represent characters, symbols and ideas tied to larger themes of history, folklore, fantasy and culture.

One of the most recent costumes to appear in a Carnival was Ryoko, a warrior inspired by the protagonist of the fantasy novel “Tales of the Dragon Princess.”



Solange Govia, the designer, created a backpack featuring twin origami-style dragons. Shiny velvet gives them scales; pointy, trimmed feathers in jewel tones of blue, purple and orange adorn the curve of their wire spines. The outfit was part of a larger tribute to Trinidad’s Asian population, which includes people of Indian and Chinese descent.



“There’s no part of the costume that was not designed with the dragon in mind,” Ms. Govia said. “I wanted women to feel powerful in the face of anything.”



The feeling that Carnival brings can be healing. That’s what I needed last year when my cousin was shot and killed. A week after his funeral, I boarded a plane to Port of Spain. I wore a premium Ryoko costume that cost me more than a month’s rent. When I stepped out on the road in my costume, heartbroken still, I felt a power surging in me. I called it joy.



Chest high, shoulders back

Trinidad’s mas originated in the 18th century, when enslaved and free Africans dressed up to mimic the European settlers who excluded them as guests during festivities before Lent.

As Trinidad evolved from a slave colony to a free republic, its Carnival changed from being the province of the elites to a celebration of resistance and freedom for the masses. Émigrés like Claudia Jones in London also organized celebrations in enclaves where they settled with migrants from the larger Caribbean diaspora.



Women increasingly gained economic independence from men, and they took on a greater role in Carnival, where they found the confidence to express themselves and challenge societal strictures and expectations of modesty.



One of the obvious ways designers continue tradition is through plumage. Bliss, a costume Marlon Smart designed for last year’s Hollywood Carnival in Los Angeles, features a large feathered headpiece that recalls the Indigenous-style headdresses of the old-time, Black Indian mas of Trinidad and the Southern United States.



Neon-yellow turkey, ostrich and nandu feathers layer over light brown peacock plumes at the crown, forming a shape that cascades to the ground. It is held together by helmet-like wiring soldered to a bejeweled faceplate shaped like upside-down ram’s horns.

Mr. Smart said the resemblance to traditional headdresses was unintentional, though the look gives the costume similar airs of nobility and regality. That makes ordinary women feel powerful, he said.

Produced by Veronica Chambers, Danny DeBelius, Marcelle Hopkins, Ruru Kuo, Antonio de Luca, Adam Sternbergh, Dodai Stewart, Amanda Webster. Prop styling by Sohani Holland.


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