Mardi Gras is fast approaching, and many people, both local and visiting, will soon flock to New Orleans. These crowds will clog the city streets, drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
While the season dominates New Orleans and the remaining lower portion of Louisiana, a different way of life dictates how people party in the central and southwestern areas of the state.
These regions of open farmland are home to the Cajun tradition of Courir de Mardi Gras, which translates to “Mardi Gras Run.”
Typical Courir involves drinking, horse-riding and dancing. A notable feature of Courir is the participants, known as “Les Mardi Gras,” who disguise themselves in colorful costumes and perform dances in exchange for chickens from the surrounding community.
Susana Ortego Guillory of Elton, Louisiana, has made a 14-year hobby of creating traditional Courir de Mardi Gras costumes for her family, friends and anybody else interested in an authentic rural Mardi Gras experience. Originally from Kinder, Louisiana, Guillory resides in her great-grandparents’ Elton home, where she makes each costume by hand.
The costumes represent the history of Courir and its ties to carnival season and Louisiana’s French history. Runners in Courir wear hats resembling a bishop’s mitre, royal hennins and graduates’ mortarboards. This headgear, first worn by the lower class, parodied the educated elite, the clergy and British royalty.
Guillory learned her craft from a coworker while working as fabric and crafts department manager at Wal-Mart in Eunice, Louisiana. Before moving her business into her home, she operated out of a shop in Eunice, but closed due to the building’s costs.
Despite growing up in rural Louisiana, Guillory only has one memory of Courir de Mardi Gras. A krewe approached her grandfather for a chicken, and she remembers the men riding horses while wearing their costumes.
“I remember [the krewe] chasing a [guineafowl],” Guillory said. “I didn’t follow them, but I stood there and listened to grandpa and the [krewe’s] captain talk.”
The costumes are fairly simple, consisting of a shirt and a pair of pants, both adorned with cloth fringes. Guillory also makes capuchon hats, which mimic the tall spires of princess’ hennins.
“[Our tradition] started with the old Cajuns who were the poor of the poorest,” Guillory said.
The original costumes of Courir de Mardi Gras were created out of recycled working attire. Colorful fringes today were once raggedy patches of fabric sewn onto clothes to cover holes and worn spots.
Guillory cites tradition as motivation to continue her hobby. An important sentiment she carries is a sense of independence from New Orleans’ manner of celebrating Mardi Gras. Guillory sees the standard combination of purple, green and gold as out of place. She also acknowledges the demand her work has created in and around her community.
“There’s a need,” Guillory said. “There’s not that many people that make the traditional Mardi Gras suits.”
Orders for the costumes begin in January, but Guillory begins her production in May in preparation for the following year. Though she makes a certain amount of costumes ahead of time, Guillory accepts special orders with custom designs. With these two order types combined, Guillory makes roughly 100-250 costumes each year.
The materials Guillory uses range from old bedding to clothing scraps to Crown Royal bags. Though she’s been too busy to make them in recent years, Guillory used to construct masks to be worn with the costumes. The masks are made from metal screen material and are decorated with large foam noses.
Since creating a Facebook page for her business, named “Mardi Gras Creations by Susana,” Guillory said the word has spread quickly about her work. Her costumes have supplied a number of areas in the state, including St. Martinville and Ville Platte. Guillory recently mailed a costume to a customer in Colorado as well.
Though the service Guillory provides may seem hobby-like, she considers it a self-sufficient job. The profits Guillory makes from selling her costumes are used to pay for supplies for the following year of production.
Guillory has no plans to move her business back into a brick-and-mortar operation. With business at its highest for only six weeks of the year, she sees no way of keeping a shop open.
“I really couldn’t move it from this position again,” Guillory said. “Too many people know I’m [at home] so they just show up. I always have to stay in the house.”
Much like the Cajun French language in Louisiana, Guillory sees the tradition of Courir as a way of preserving Louisiana’s heritage and culture. She’s been approached by some people interested in learning how to make costumes and masks for themselves. Her own grandson has already participated in Courir in full costume.
“I got my grandson into running [Courir] at 4,” Guillory said. “He just enjoys it, and he’s picked all his fabric.”
Guillory provides costumes in sizes ranging from newborn to adult XXXL.