(Music by Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, courtesy of Jazz Crusade Records)
Dressing up is nothing out of the ordinary in New Orleans. The tradition of costuming is inextricably linked to the Mardi Gras Indians, but also goes back as far as the late 19th century. It’s simply part of the culture here, and many New Orleanians delight in re-interpreting NOLA’s costuming tradition in their own way.
I married into a family of fun-loving Greek-Americans in the city. And it was one of my cousins who took me to the brightly-painted house on St. Claude Avenue, The Parlor. The open house event, one of many Second Saturday art happenings in the Bywater neighborhood, was, in a word, amazing. I felt like I had walked into a theatrical wonder world where everyone was riotously dressed. At its center and tending bar was our charming, one-of-a-kind hostess: Oliver Manhattan.
Afterwards we drove with Oliver down to Frenchman Street, teeming with people, where I came to understand what a prominent figure she is in the city scene. Through her connections to the community, I was able to film a costumed Mardi Gras Indian. (Representing this tradition in images requires sensitivity.) As luck would have it, when I made a return trip a few weeks ago, Oliver had already planned her next Parlor event, Haunte Couture. For this Halloween-themed party, she invited three other designers and models to showcase their work. It was such a surreal affair that I shot most of it in slow motion. The whole scene made me think of Fellini, and to see this action spilling out onto the sidewalk of Saint Claude Avenue just enhanced the quirkiness.
I’m so thankful to Oliver for giving me a glimpse into her world and her own contribution to the rich history of costuming in New Orleans. I discovered that no one ever looks bad in a big hat! Though I didn’t buy one for myself this trip, maybe next time I will.
Alex Rappoport is an award-winner director, cinematographer, and editor based in upstate New York.
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