Masks for Mardi Gras are the most distinctive and memorable aspects of this celebration. As far back as Roman times, decorative masks were part of the carnival atmosphere of pagan festivals such as Saturnalia and Lupercalia, and when the modern Mardi Gras celebrations began to develop in medieval Europe, this tradition was kept alive.
Etymologists suggest that the word carnival is derived from the term “Carrus Navalis,” which was the name of the Roman festival of Isis. During the festival, participants walked along a parade route behind a decorated wooden boat wearing masks. The Roman event is considered to be a precursor to the current style of festivals, in which costumed participants ride or follow floats along a parade route.
Whether celebrating Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, the Carnival in Paris, or Fastnacht in Germany, the carnival masks worn during worldwide celebrations are unique to the artists and individuals who create them. The masks range from very simple affairs to ornate, handcrafted carnival masks to coordinate with costumes.
The images of Carnival in Venice, for instance, are particularly well known for the beautiful masks that are part of the celebrations, but there are fascinating examples of masks, hats, and costumes that appear at Mardi Gras celebrations throughout the world. In Rio de Janeiro, early carnival festivities began around the 1700s and carnival masks were introduced in the late 1800s when performers wore large, over-sized papier-mâché masks.
The Limoux Carnival, held in the eponymous town in France’s Languedoc region, is one of the oldest celebrations and, much like Venice, is famous for its elaborate costumes and masks. These masks for Mardi Gras may be simple creations that cover the eyes and nose just enough to hide a person’s identity. The mask may be worn along with a wig or a tall cone-shaped hat called a capuchon.
No matter where you are, the history behind these artistic creations is the same. In the earliest celebrations, the masks for Mardi Gras were worn by nobility as a way to cloak their identities. Over time, the masks became a way to mock the nobility, with caricatures of clergy or public officials, and today they are worn as a form of creativity, free expression, and fun.
Masks are made in several ways. Simple masks can be handmade using a durable base such as cardboard or construction paper and then decorated. Papier-mâché is also used as material to make a sturdier mask that is painted or adorned with feathers, sequins, leather strips, and ribbons. More elaborately decorated masks are hand-painted using variations of traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green and depict exaggerated facial features, harlequin smiles, or tear drops. Masks can be of any person or animal or reflect a specific theme.
Mardi Gras decorations play a significant role in each country or city celebrating the event. Typically, decorations include the official Mardi Gras flag, banners and streamers displaying the colors of purple, green, and gold associated with Mardi Gras, strands of beads, feather boas, and gold doubloons, but the style of clothing will vary greatly from St Louis to Venice to the sambas in Brazil, for instance.
In New Orleans, hand-painted ceramic masks or highly decorated masks adorned with feathers and ribbons and attached to a stick are also suitable as Mardi Gras decorations. As the city prepares for the celebration, these and other decorations are displayed in homes, storefronts, businesses and along parade routes to liven the atmosphere in preparation for the activities, parades, and parties leading up to Fat Tuesday.