If you find yourself in the Caribbean anytime between February and March, prepare to experience one of the most stunning parades of all time. The Carnival celebration is an annual tradition that occurs in early winter however, its costumes reflect anything but the chilly weather one might associate with the season in which its celebrated.
Carnival is famous for its extravagant costumes, dancers, and dazzling floats. Although these costumes once covered the dancers completely, they have become more revealing and decorative overtime, making them a memorable staple during the festival in Rio.
THE HISTORY of CARNIVAL
The celebration of Carnival was not always the glamourous show that it is today. Originating in Italy, Carnival was a Catholic ceremony, with the name deriving from the Italian term ‘carneval’, which translates to ‘putting away the meat.’ This term is significant to the Catholic faith because it symbolizes refraining from consuming meat until Easter has passed. Eventually this religious costume festival spread to other Catholic countries, including Portugal, France, Trinidad, and the Caribbean.
THE FIRST CARNIVAL in the CARIBBEAN
In the late 1700s, French settlers introduced the Caribbean islands to the Carnival masquerade celebration. These French immigrants brought settlers of many ethnicities which threw a melting pot of cultures into the dances, costumes, music, and traditions surrounding Carnival. The Portuguese settlers began to introduce elaborate costumes to compliment highly decorated masks as a symbol of wealth and social status.
STYLES of CARNIVAL COSTUMES
Throughout the 1930s, masks were worn as a part of the traditional Carnival costume to bring fun and mystery to the festival. A few popular styles of masks included animal designs such as donkeys and chimps, skulls and death-themed masks, and designs that originated from the festival’s Italian roots. After the early 1900s, more people participated in the Carnival parades, regardless of social class. This meant that costumes needed to be affordable for the middle and lower class, as well as heat sensitive as it was difficult to wear heavy layers under the hot Caribbean sun. By the 1950s, less and less fabric was used for each costume, making women’s costumes mostly swimwear and leaving men ditching shirts all together and opting for only trousers. To make up for the loss of clothing, costumes began to incorporate large tails and headdresses made of feathers, fur, and beads.
Although Carnival is traditionally celebrated in late-winter or early spring before Easter, many islands in the Caribbean have moved the festival to other parts of the year. Martinique celebrates ‘King Carnival’ on Ash Wednesday, with the other days before Lent known as the ‘Martinique Carnival.’ St. Vincent celebrates ‘Vincy Mas’, which is a summer carnival that features the famous Mardi Gras performances, music, and parades. In Haiti there is a carnival known as a ‘Haitian Defile Kanaval’, which is a large celebration that spreads throughout many cities in the country.
RIO’S SAMBA SCHOOLS
Beginning in the 1970s, Samba schools began popping up in Rio to bring large groups of dancers together that would put on performances for the parades. With up to 4,000 people per school, these dance groups learn distinctive dances to make their group stand out from other Samba schools. It is common for each school to have its own set of coordinating costumes to keep groups of dancers together and distinguished from the rest of the parade.
COSTUMES from the 2020 CARNIVAL
This year, Carnival in Rio took place on February 21st (the Friday before Ash Wednesday) and ended on February 26th (Ash Wednesday). With the major events occurring in Rio de Janeiro, parades filled the stress of Sambadrome bringing color, lights, and glamour with each group of Samba dancers sporting colorful costumes.
Whether you live in the Caribbean or you are visiting on holiday, Carnival is a celebration for anyone who wishes to participate. Its deep roots in European history have given the festivals’ costumes a chance to evolve from a religious garment that was only worn by high society, to a decorative, sparkling, brightly-colored costume that can be worn by anyone.