Get to Know the Krewes of Mardi Gras

Article by: Adam Karlin|@adamkarlin

Mon February 16, 2015 | 00:00 AM

Mardi Gras in New Orleans can seem, at first blush, like chaos given form. Revelers take to the streets; loud music is ubiquitous; the city becomes a riot of colors. For a day, by all appearances, anarchy rules in America (or wherever New Orleans is. There's a decent case to be made that this town has more in common with the Caribbean than Baton Rouge, but that's an argument for another article).

Yet beneath this festive mess are sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant power relationships, social ties and community networks that all function – somehow – as a coherent whole, producing the spectacle that is Mardi Gras. How does it all work? Who's pulling the strings – or at least plucking them as the city parties? Much of the answer lays with the krewes of New Orleans. That spelling is purposely off, by the way - "krewe" with a "k" is one of those New Orleans things. Scratching your head? Let's have some history.

Managing the Misrule

Colonialism and Catholicism exported Carnival season around much of the world. The roots and causes of Carnival celebrations are many, but essentially, the festival, be you in Rio, Trinidad or New Orleans, marks a time of feasting and indulgence directly before the imposed austerity of the Lent season. In a somewhat similar vein, one could regard Carnival as a social pressure valve that relieved the tension of living in a structured, hierarchical society. For a few weeks (culminating in Fat Tuesday), the commoners and peasants had the run of things.

Indeed, in Shakespeare's England, peasants celebrated Twelfth Night (January 6), the traditional beginning of Carnival, by electing a Lord of Misrule and generally flipping social convention. It's no coincidence Shakespeare's own play, Twelfth Night, has a plot driven by cross dressing and mocking nobility. With that said, Twelfth Night ends with all characters reverting to their gender norms and marriages to various dukes and duchesses. Carnival ends with order, and in truth, that order is ever present. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras and the Carnival season has been celebrated since even before the city's founding; French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville named a spot 60 miles south of the city 'Point du Mardi Gras' to celebrate the holiday as he approached the site that would become New Orleans.

The Birth of Comus

By the 19th century, New Orleans had been a French, then Spanish, then French again colony, all before being sold to the U.S.A. during the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The mixed French and Spanish population called itself "Creole," celebrated Carnival, and lived in a state of relative tension with the Americans who flooded the city post-Purchase. Throughout the beginning of the 19th century, the new social order of Creoles and Americans was tested by this tension, and concurrently, Carnival celebrations became rowdier and more dangerous; at one stage local newspapers were calling for an end to Mardi Gras celebrations. All of this shifted when a group of Anglo-American men decided, in a feat of unintentional alliteration, to co-opt Creole Carnival. They formed Comus, the oldest operating krewe, in December of 1856, and essentially saved the celebration.

What did Comus do? Basically, they built an entire mythos around Mardi Gras that persists to this day. Many of the elements of the party that we cherish in modern New Orleans – themed parades linked to classical mythology, floats and tossing "throws" (like beads) to the crowd – stem from Comus. By creating a krewe, Comus gave Carnival a focus as well as infrastructure.

More krewes followed,  and were always an assemblage of New Orleans' moneyed elite. In 1872, following the visit of a member of Russian royalty, the city had a love affair with all things aristocratic, and Rex, the krewe of the traditional "King of Carnival," was formed. Following this, krewes would elect kings, queens, dukes, duchesses and a host of other titled positions to a "court"; members reflected the movers and shakers of New Orleans.

Dozens of krewes have formed since the 19th century, but not all have been such assemblages of the elite – at least initially. Zulu, for example, is the most prominent African American krewe in New Orleans. Founded in 1916, its members mocked the processions of white Mardi Gras royalty with banana stalk scepters and paint can crowns.

Today, Zulu's membership rolls include many of the city's most powerful African American politicians and businessmen; effectively, it is as influential as any other krewe in the city.

New Krewes, New Rules

For many New Orleanians, the social calendar of Mardi Gras (and indeed, the social life of the city) is closely tied to krewe events and membership. Large krewes throw Mardi Gras balls that are a bustle of debutantes, fancy dress and black tie attire. Krewe membership itself can easily reach four figures for annual membership dues, and you have to put in time (and money) to ride – that is, to be on a float during a Carnival parade. Once you're on that float, you don a mask and toss baubles to a crowd from the procession. It all seems a bit medieval, doesn't it?

That said, since the mid-20th century, there has been a democratization of this whole social scene. First, there came super krewes, invented by the krewe of Bacchus in 1969. Super krewes feature B-list celebrities, enormous floats and open, though expensive, membership. They're quintessentially American: loud, flashy, and available to anyone with a big enough wallet.

For however much the emperors like to parade in New Orleans, there are those who enjoy pointing out that they have no clothes. These jesters thus birthed satirical krewes like Krew D'etat and Krewe du Vieux, the latter being famous for handmade floats and extremely raunchy, Burning Man-esque art installations (to whit: last year's float portrayed Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal getting violated by a giant paper-mache penis).

Neighborhoods and social networks have created their own krewes, each one representing a microcosm of the city's demographic pie; the all-female Muses, for example, now has the status of a major city krewe, and was formed by like-minded women in 2000.