Isla Mujeres Mystery ~ Lynda L. Lock

The Secret Life of a Carnaval Costume

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Dazzling headdresses and smiles

The late afternoon sun reflects on the tall sparkly headdresses glistening on the sequins, jewels, and pearls.  The smiles of the women are just as dazzling as they dance along rue Medina in time to the pounding salsa beat.  

It is carnaval time in Mexico!  The dance troupes wear astoundingly beautiful costumes – a new theme every year means new costumes.  This year the theme was Mágica Tradicion featuring oceans and sea creatures. 

Orange and pink and purple 2012

Every year we are astounded by the variety of the designs and the creativity.  So, I asked two of my very bilingual island friends: “How much does the average costume cost?  How long to make them?  What happens after carnaval?”  

Since both of the people that I asked were men – they had to check with their female family members for the real answers. According to the ladies, the cost usually runs around 1500 to 2500 pesos per costume, depending on the intricacy of the design and materials required.  They take a few days to weeks to construct, and are handmade by several extremely talented women on Isla working out of their homes.  Planning for the next year starts very soon after the current event has finished.

Starfish princessa 2013

This year my favourite group included petite starfish princesses and little octopi princes, their older counterparts dressed as fanciful mermaids or mermen.  

Other groups are outfitted as lobsters, clams, sea anemones, seaweed, coral, waves, or dolphins. The colours range from pale green and coral pink, to vibrant blues mixed with sunflower yellows and deep purples.  

One troupe of ladies was dressed in black, blue, and silver with wide brimmed hats that flounced in time to the salsa beat. 

Enjoying the parade 2013

I snapped photographs of several groups during the five-day event only to discover that there were many others that I missed entirely.  How does that happen?  

Well, the parades are never quite organized – invariably starting hours later than advertised and participation of the dance troupes appears to be discretionary, not mandatory.  Occasionally a float or decorated truck breaks down leaving the entire group stranded – unable to join in the fun.  It’s an organizers’ nightmare; like trying to line-up a group of cats.

With three parades the mix of groups changed daily.  Some of the dance troupes were in all three parades, others only appeared in one and other groups never managed to participate in any parade choosing instead to do impromptu dances in various neighbourhood locations on the island.  No matter.  As long as everyone had a good time, that’s all that counts.

The lobster-ladies 2013

And when the five-day celebration ends with the beginning of the forty days of Lent, what happens to the beautiful carnaval costumes?

According to my two sources of information – they are basura, garbage.  Some are stored for a few months in boxes, others are thrown out.  Occasionally the owner will wear it to another costume party before throwing it away.  So that prompted random thoughts of a costume rental company, or a costume museum where one of each design could be displayed for the admiration of others.  

Or another middle of the night musing included the creation of a costume hand-me-down system between the larger cities and smaller communities.  Mexico City to could give their elaborate costumes to Cancún, and Cancún could pass along theirs to Isla Mujeres for instance.  

Friends 2012 parade

Then reality set it. 

On average there are about ten dance groups that participate in the Isla Mujeres carnaval each year, with a wide variety of costume designs.  So, for either the museum idea or the costume rental plan that would mean dozens of pieces that would need to be cleaned, preserved, and protected from a humid, salty climate.  A climate that would rust, tarnish or rot the elaborate outfits in a very short time. 

Plus these beautiful works of art are not one-size-fits-all; they are custom made for the individual owner so a swap or trade system would be difficult to facilitate.  I could just imagine the havoc that idea would cause as people of various heights and sizes tried on costumes in an attempt to find one that would fit.  It just wouldn’t work.

Heading to the parade 2012

Ah well, digital photos will have to help keep the creativity of the seamstresses alive.  We look forward to next year’s artistic expressions.  The colour, the music, and the flashing smiles.

Hasta Luego          
Lynda and Lawrie


2 Replies to “The Secret Life of a Carnaval Costume”

  1. Dear Lynda, I always enjoy your blog. I have often been astounded by the elaborate costumes and time and money spent making them for Carnival and other festivals. I was not on the island for Carnival so I really enjoyed your photos. So pretty.


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