Beads, Feathers, Sparkles and Oranges: Carnival Around the World

Carnival is quickly approaching! Around the world, different communities and cultures are gearing up to celebrate. Carnival is observed in various capacities and with various traditions, and can look quite different depending on where you are and who you are partying with. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the most richly varied celebrations there is! There are all sorts of different costumes, types of music, parades, traditions, and ways of observing the days leading up to Lent (one of the origins of Carnival many centuries ago).

Attention: shoes, bottom left!

It would be nearly impossible to discuss all types of Carnival costumes and celebrations in one blog post. Actually, it might be nearly impossible to discuss all types of Carnival costumes and celebrations in just one book, let alone one blog post. There are hundreds of different celebrations, traditions, and histories related to Carnival worldwide; it’s a detailed and complex topic! This post is just barely scraping the surface with a few different sartorial traditions from different places. In no way is it meant to be all-encompassing!

Ivrea, Italy

If you’re a costomer (or if you read our last blog post), you know a bit about the famous Carnevale in Venice. In another part of northern Italy, in the city of Ivrea, Carnevale takes on a unique, citrusy theme, with the yearly Battle of the Oranges.

Battle of the Oranges!

Ivrea’s Battle of the Oranges takes place as part of one of the oldest continuous Carnival celebrations in the world. The most popular version of the story is that the Battle of the Oranges commemorates a rebellion against a tyrannical duke, who tried to kidnap a miller’s daughter, Violetta. According to legend, Violette fought back and ultimately led the townspeople to depose the evil duke. To celebrate their victory, the townspeople began throwing oranges at each other.

The smiling lady on this float is representing La Mugnaia- the miller’s daughter, Violetta.

To commemorate this initial battle, modern residents of Ivrea (and visitors, of course) dress up in medieval costumes and divide into 9 teams. Then, the orange pelting commences, and the epic battle rages for three days. If you wish to remain neutral, just wear a red hat- it signifies that you are not on an orange-battle team.

One of the oldest organized teams, Asso di Picche, wears costumes with the Ace of Spades on a red background. Is it me, or does this photo look sort of like a still from a Monty Python movie?

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Remember when I said it would be nearly impossible to discuss all types of Carnival costumes in just one book? That principle could be applied to celebrations in Brazil alone. There is so much variety in terms of costumes, culture and traditions, lore, Carnival characters…you get the idea. Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval is one of the most famous celebrations out there. For lots of people around the world, when they hear Carnaval, they think of Rio de Janeiro!

A very awesome mushroom-themed group of Carnaval celebrants c. 1930. I want an outfit like this!

Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval is the world’s largest. Dating back to the early 18th century, this absolutely massive celebration attracts people from around the world. Parades, parties, performances, and general revelry are the name of the game. Street parties, blocos and bandas take place around the city, where one can join in on dancing to music played by live bands. At the iconic Sambradrome (which was built in the 1980s), formally organized parades show off the fruits of months of labor on behalf of the participants.

Performers from the São Clemente Samba School, from Carnaval 2019 in Rio de Janeiro. Photo is by Carl De Souza, AFP.

At the Sambadrome, samba schools (organized samba groups) compete with one another to prove who can create the most elaborate and impressive floats, costumes, and samba choreography. The dance competition is world-class, with the dancers rehearsing intensely in the months leading up to Carnaval, donning incredibly intricate themed costumes. Beads, sequins, and feathers are applied painstakingly and by hand-it is a true art form!

These costumes incorporate a tad of traditional commedia dell’arte Carnival costuming inspiration into a contemporary look. Photo by Raphael Dias for Newsweek, 2019.

Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro is one heck of a party. If you ever get the chance to go, do it!!

Trinidad and Tobago

From nation to nation and community to community, Caribbean Carnivals are known for their exuberant celebrations, elaborate costumes, festival lore, and more. Trinidad and Tobago is home to one of the world’s more famous Carnival celebrations. The Carnival in Port of Spain (the capital of Trinidad and Tobago) is the largest in the Caribbean. Carnival anticipation builds each year in the weeks leading up to Lent, with anticipatory fetes culminating in a two-day festival held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. These celebrations are marked by parades, parties, dancing, Calypso music, and dance, music, and costume competitions.

Gorgeous float at Carnival in Port of Spain!

Like other Carnival celebrations around the world, Carnival costumes in Trinidad and Tobago incorporate specific, recognizable traditional characters in addition to more modern costumes. One of these traditional ‘mas’ characters is Dame Lorraine, which was created by liberated, formerly enslaved Trinidadian peoples. Dame Lorraine’s origins can be traced back to the 19th century, when Trinidad and Tobago was occupied by French colonizers. The Dame Lorraine costume is imitative of French Aristocratic styles worn by women, with exaggerated bustles, bust padding, parasols, fans, hats, masks, and more. Historically, the Dame Lorraine costume was often worn by men, but nowadays, the costume is worn by people of all genders.

Revelers Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago in 2020, dressed as Dame Lorraine. Photo is from the Trinidadian Guardian. Notice the 19th-century costuming influences along with modern elements- bustles, parasols, bloomers!
Stunning Carnival costume in Port of Spain. Photo by Sean Drakes.

On Carnival Tuesday, celebrants don their most resplendent costumes, complete with feathers, beads and sequins. These costumes are frequently color-coordinated to match a selected theme within each Carnival band or group. These bands compete for a panel of judges in order to win Best Band of the Year, and other prizes. While Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is now a major draw for tourists, it is, at its core, a community-centered and fostered cultural celebration. It’s truly something special!

Quebec City

When someone says ‘Carnival’, do you picture temperatures below zero, ice palaces, and snowshoes? Probably not, but now you know! Carnaval de Québec is one of the world’s largest winter Carnival festivals. This celebration has been held off-and-on since the late 19th century, with an official, modern event taking place each year since it was inaugurated in 1955.

A polar bear float aglow at a night parade!
Ah, Audrey II making an appearance at a night parade! Photo by Marc-Lautenbacher.

Freezing temps are no match for the festive spirit of Quebec City and its residents. In addition to a masquerade ball at the famed  Château Frontenac, one can join in on one of the night parades, where costumes participants are lit up amongst an enchanting snowy background.

Bonhomme’s ice palace. This stunning creation is made anew each year (it is ice, after all).

There is also a real-life ice palace that one can visit. The ice palace is built as the home of Bonhomme Carnaval, the beloved snowman mascot of the event.

Bonhomme Carnaval himself, in his distinctive red hat.

In addition to the ice palace and night parades, there is all manner of festive wintertime activities, like dog sledding, ice canoeing, ice sculpture competitions, concerts and cultural performances, food festivals…you name it. There is something especially enchanting about Quebec City’s Carnival- perhaps it’s the testament to our ability to celebrate in spite of, or perhaps to make the most of, intense cold weather conditions.

It’s so interesting and inspiring to read about how many different types of Carnival celebrations there are around the world, and the intricacies in ritual behind each different celebration. These four examples are just the beginning! Do you have a Carnival celebration where you are from? What is your favorite tradition?

If you are heading to a Carnival celebration, or if reading about them has sparked your Carnival spirit, check out our curated Carnival Collection, featuring our most festive and colorful styles!

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