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Imperial Calcasieu Mardi Gras Museum.
Patriotism looks fabulous at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu.

Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Lake Charles, Louisiana

The Imperial Calcasieu region of Louisiana covers an area larger than some European countries, which gives it a sizable population of partiers during Carnival season. Over 70 official "krewes" converge on the city of Lake Charles every January and February for a seemingly endless series of Mardi Gras balls and parades, in a display of revelry second in size only to New Orleans.

Imperial Calcasieu Mardi Gras Museum.
Conceptual sketches in the costume design room.

By tradition, each krewe must have an entirely new wardrobe of elaborate costumes every year. Lake Charles prides itself in its over-the-top outfits, made sturdy enough for public showboating -- and yet at the end of each Carnival season they had to be destroyed. No one had the closet space for a giant wearable skull, or a four-foot-high space helmet encrusted in sequins, or a dress with a 12-foot-wide collar adorned with the life-size heads of all Seven Dwarfs.

Imperial Calcasieu Mardi Gras Museum.
Giant, wearable skull flanked by a guy in a glitter sombrero and a woman with a feathered Earth on her head.

Anne Monlezun, founder one of the Lake Charles krewes, wanted a safe haven for the city's sartorial showstoppers, a place where people could see them up close and year-round. Starting with some of her outfits and those of a few local designer-friends, she opened the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu in 1998.

At first the costumes filled only one classroom in an old school. Now, thanks to years of donations, they take up the entire second floor of the East Wing of the building -- nearly 300 eye-grabbing gowns, robes, cassocks, dusters, kimonos, cloaks, and associated toggery (A similar number sits in storage, and is routinely swapped in). "It's the largest display of Mardi Gras costumes in the world," said museum director David Faulk. Eighty percent of them, he said, were sewn by the apparently inexhaustible dressmakers of Lake Charles.

The museum is a maze-like a warren of rooms and hallways. Visitors follow a winding path, flanked on both sides by showroom dummies dressed in floor-to-ceiling feathered plumes, sparkly rhinestones, and kaleidoscopic fabrics. It might be claustrophobic if it wasn't so colorful -- although you probably wouldn't want to be stuck here if the lights went out.

Imperial Calcasieu Mardi Gras Museum.
His Majesty, Claude "Buddy" Leach, 1996 King of The Mystic Krewe of Louisianians.

The bizarre vibe of Mardi Gras is enhanced by the museum's motion-activated mannequin guides, each a likeness of a person or animal connected to Lake Charles' Carnival history. Heads pivot, eyes move, recorded voices speak with audibly clacking jaws. Two robot chickens debate the merits of conventional versus "country style" Mardi Gras; a masked robot baby -- who sounds like he's been sniffing helium -- explains the ritual of King Cakes; a robot dressmaker sits in a room piled high with mounds of silks, sequins, and feathers, oblivious to his Herculean workload.

Imperial Calcasieu Mardi Gras Museum.
Elaborate costumes such as these - no match for gusty winds - are only worn indoors.

David told us that a single Mardi Gras costume can cost up to $10,000, paid for out of the pocket of the person who wears it. Just sewing on the rhinestones and sequins can take months -- and all of this expense and work is for something that's only worn three or four times. "It's almost like a wedding dress," he said.

No modern-day American wedding gown can match the scale and weirdness of Lake Charles' Carnival costumes, a fashion mash-up of the Arabian Nights, Babylonian spectacle, and a Las Vegas space cult. What appear to be stage props in the museum are in fact ready-to-wear clothes, some of them ceiling-scrapers 20 feet high, all of them displayed with photos of their original owners wearing them as if to prove that it's possible. "Just the collars, the mantles, can weigh 40 pounds, and that's not including the crown, the jacket, the train, the pants, boots, gloves," said David. "You gotta have good balance and a strong back."

Imperial Calcasieu Mardi Gras Museum.
The first King of Contraband, Rudolph Kraus, flanked by a bejeweled royal court.

We asked David if he had ever worn a costume like that. "No," he answered, "but I do participate in the parades wearing a purple tux. It's kinda blinged out, a little bit." Visitors can experience a similar thrill in the museum's final room, filled with the sound of cheering crowds and Zydeco music, where they can try on a few small Carnival masks and headpieces, climb aboard an indoor parade float, and toss Mardi Gras beads to their friends.

David said that lightweight fabrics and LEDs are helping to make Lake Charles' costumes even more exotic and extravagant. Designers are also spurred to new heights of outlandishness knowing that they won't have to automatically throw away their creations next year; they can donate them to the museum. "We cross our fingers they do and they don't," said David. "We're running out of room."

Also see: Mardi Gras World

Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu

Central School Arts and Humanities Center

East of downtown, on the second floor of the Central School Arts and Humanities Center. Parking lot entrance is on the west side of Reid St. between Pujo and Kirby Sts.
Adults $10.

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