KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Tomorrow is Mardi Gras, which means in cities all over the world there's going to be parties, dancing, parades - all kinds of mischief. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is also about the costumes. Costuming is actually a thing all year long in New Orleans. It just happens to peek at Mardi Gras. Eve Abrams reports.
EVE ABRAMS, BYLINE: Like most of her friends and neighbors, Monique Leon takes costuming very seriously.
MONIQUE LEON: I'm on the top of my ladder, practically on top of the closet that I have my Mardi Gras boxes.
ABRAMS: Five of them - stuffed full.
LEON: One box is completely devoted just to wings. Yeah, some of them are feathers, some of them are paper-mache.
ABRAMS: So how come you have so many different kinds of wings?
LEON: Well, why does a woman wear different kinds of lipstick? I mean, it's a mood, you know? You just have to have them for that right moment because you just don't always feel like wearing the dark, black, goth-looking wings. Sometimes you want to have that candy-apple red ones that you're wearing. You know, it's a mood.
ABRAMS: When Leon moved to New Orleans over 20 years ago, she found a huge costume culture.
LEON: You weren't the oddball if you were the one that dressed up. You were the oddball if you didn't dress up. But then I realized, yeah, why not, you know? You can be not you for a moment.
DAVID FOSTER: If there's a 12-step program to becoming a New Orleanian, step one is learning your limits. Step two, learning how to dress up. Step three, learning how to let loose, and so on.
ABRAMS: David Foster says his customs take up more closet space than his regular clothes by far. In fact, wigs and banana costumes - his family dressed as bananas foster one year because, well, you get it - occupy the only actual closet in their house. They lived down the block from a main Mardi Gras parade route. Riders in these parades - the people throwing beads - all have to be masked.
FOSTER: It really grows out of this old tradition in New Orleans. If a day on the parade is a special day then you are no longer yourself. You're part of the krewe. You're part of a bigger thing.
KAREN LEATHEM: It's a performance. And it's a spontaneous performance that people are doing from the moment they step out of their house.
ABRAMS: Karen Leathem is a historian at the Louisiana State Museum who also loves to dress up. Leathem says the oldest account of costuming in New Orleans dates to 1730, when a homesick Parisian, Marc-Antoine Caillot, dressed up as a woman on Mardi Gras day.
LEATHEM: And he's very proud of himself - how much he looks like a woman. And he's not doing it for comic effect. He fools a number of people, and he's very proud of this. And he talks about even plumping up his breasts and applying beauty marks on his face.
ABRAMS: Over the nearly three centuries that followed, the popularity of New Orleans costuming culture has waxed and waned. Today, it's more widespread than ever.
LEATHEM: Some people like to be the show as opposed to watch the show.
ABRAMS: Absolutely, says Monique Leon.
LEON: It's OK to walk right up to somebody and say, I can't believe how amazing you look. It breaks down the barriers.
ABRAMS: But after Hurricane Katrina, Leon feared people wouldn't, or couldn't, play dress-up anymore. She considered moving.
LEON: My ex-boyfriend put dibs on my Mardi Gras boxes. He said, well, if you leave, you're not going to be able to use your costumes anywhere else, so can I have your Mardi Gras boxes? And I panicked. I was like, absolutely not. If I'm going, I'm taking my Mardi Gras boxes with me. He's like, well, you won't be able to use them there, or there or there. And I started to feel really, really nervous, like, oh no, well, geez, what should I do? Just so much easier to stay here.
ABRAMS: This year, Leon will be on the streets dressed as a silver lining, showering people with unrelenting optimism. For NPR News, I'm Eve Abrams in New Orleans.
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