By Renee Peck
As far as I know, New Orleans is the only place in the world where guys don’t mind wearing pantyhose.
People in New Orleans love to wear costumes. At the drop of a tophat. Halloween, birthday, Carnival, Voodoo Fest, wherever, whenever. Where else would a sportscaster vow to dress in drag should we ever win the Super Bowl (and hundreds of males did just that last year, in homage to Buddy D)?
When American Idol dropped into town last August for Season 10 auditions, out came the masquerade crowd: a tenor in a high sequined Carnival monarch collar, a soprano peeking from behind a mask. Cliché, for sure. But so expected.
Every local family I know, from Marrero to Chalmette to Algiers Point, has a costume box or closet — some designated place to stow feather boas and 4-inch pumps and assorted satin over-garments.
In my family, it used to be a trunk, filled to overflowing with tattered wigs and pirate belts and camouflage pants. When we returned after Hurricane Katrina to our flooded lakefront home, I pawed through moldy velvet dresses (our Renaissance era) and dingy tiaras (with three daughters, princess attire ruled for years).
Here in New Orleans we live in a dress-up world.
The funny thing is … I’m generally mortified in a costume. Yep, I’m by nature a real non-costume person. I grew up in a small town where attire was noticed and dissected, and standing out from the crowd a surefire way to end up in social purgatory.
When you move to a city in your early 20s, your culture is pretty much established. To some extent, you will always be on the outside looking in. Some things New Orleanians do will always strike you as odd or idiosyncratic or hilarious. It reminds me of something a friend once told me, when describing why a particular student didn’t quite fit in at our genteel boarding school: “I mean, she’s someone who would wash her grandmother’s silver in the dishwasher.”
For years I’ve ridden in the Iris parade the Saturday before Mardi Gras. I love the crowds, the beads, the noise, the sheer rush of it all. But I have to admit, that first pre-parade Saturday morning at the Hilton Hotel, waiting for buses to take us to the floats, I stood in fake leather lederhosen and green tights, wearing a Peter Pan hat garnished with a feather, and thought, “I will never live this down.”
Stewart, who has none of my inhibitions and good legs, has embraced the costume mentality since the day we moved here in the summer of ‘75. I remember him as a twentysomething ballerina in a tutu and pink pantyhose (see what I mean?). Then there was daughter Megan’s fifth-grade Halloween party, when Stewart dressed as Fred Flintstone in a short costume that showed off those legs (adding to family lore of parental humiliation).
Thirty years later, I’m still loping along gamely with the costume trend. Last Halloween, when the Saints played in the Superdome, I suggested we attend in black and gold togas, tastefully draped over jeans and Brees jerseys. No way, replied Stewart, was he wearing a toga. He hit the nearest costume shop and returned with voluminous matching head-to-toe clown costumes instead, complete with curly red wigs and pompoms. We drew more stares in Section 140 than the Saints pope or Whistleman, both spotted nearby.
As native New Orleanians, my kids inherited costume genes in the same way they were born with a willingness to slurp a raw oyster or the innate ability to know that a parade approaches before the first siren sounds. Costuming, to them, is no more of a mystery than, say, the fact that here you head east to cross to the West Bank. Childhood photo albums are littered with pictures of Christina riding her bike in flapper attire, or Megan playing the piano dressed as a tiger.
While I’m still not comfortable in face paint, I’ve learned to appreciate costume culture from a spectator’s stance. What would Mardi Gras be without dancing Dalmatians? Or swamp monsters? And how better to express the native creativity of New Orleanians than a costume like one Carnival’s Blind Venetian – a guy in artist beret and dark glasses with Venetian blinds draped over his shoulders?
For Megan’s birthday in September, we went to dinner at Irene’s. At the table next to us sat an older couple, elegantly dressed, an empty chair at the table. Ten minutes later a young man rushed in, obviously late. He wore a floor-length crimson silk ballgown with a plunging neckline and pearls. Ah, yes: It was the day of the Red Dress Run, when guys not only wear the requisite red skirt, but buy wigs and purses and shoes to match. No one in the restaurant batted an eye.
I love this city.
Maybe it’s time to start a new costume trunk. Beginning with those awful clown costumes. I’ll think about it tomorrow, while I’m handwashing my grandmother’s silver.