Julie Lodato O’Day is passionate about Carnival. An avid parade watcher growing up in New Orleans, she joined a marching unit of a popular parading outfit as an adult and relished the opportunity to join in the party.
But all the while, she was thinking about how she could form a better marching krewe — one that leaned heavily on the revered traditions of Carnival while adding a modern sensibility to them.
The result is Les Dames de Perlage. The krewe boasts a membership of some 40 women, ranging in age “from 20-something to 60-something,” who come from all walks of life and all parts of the city.
And for the third year, Les Dames are set to take the streets as a marching unit in some of the city’s parades.
But these aren’t just “any old dames” sashaying down St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. No, the members of Les Dames de Perlage (French for “women of beadwork”) spend dozens upon dozens of hours beading elaborate corsets by hand. They spend a lot of time constructing elaborate headdresses, as well. They may wear boots or fishnets or other sassy accoutrements to highlight their magnificent costumes.
The 40 women of Les Dames de Perlage will march in four parades this season — Freret on Feb. 7, Nyx on Feb. 11, Tucks on Feb. 14 and Thoth on Feb. 15. They walk the entire parade route, accompanied by the Big Fun Brass Band and “shepherded” by a team of “dudes” — their husbands or boyfriends.
The krewe’s theme this year is “Jazzfest,” and their corsets display fantastic images. The creations range from an image of Trombone Shorty, pumping his instrument over his head upon a triumphant exit from the Acura Stage a few years ago, to the Peter Max festival poster from 1994.
Fun is always in the mix when Les Dames hit the streets, but the group has a higher goal, said Lodato O’Day, who leads the group along with co-founder Christine Clouatre.
“We want to celebrate traditions old and new that accompany Carnival,” said Lodato O’Day, 38. “We want to have fun, but we want to bring back social aid to Mardi Gras. A lot has been forgotten about the good that krewes do for the city and for charity. We want to give back to the community.”
Les Dames de Perlage have done so by donating to the Mystic Krewe of Nyx a hand-beaded and framed logo for the female krewe’s Purses and Pearls auction, which supported the Alzheimer’s Association of Louisiana. Krewe members also have participated in events that assisted the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children, and the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
While that might seem like a heady start for such a young Carnival group, the dames of Les Dames also excel at beading, and their costumes show it.
Each member is personally fitted for a tight-fitting, steel-ribbed, underbust corset that is made by a company in North Carolina. They then spend many hours beading by hand the artwork they want to display on the outfit. It then is Velcroed to the garment for parades.
For krewe member Denise Sassone, this year’s beading effort took 214 hours to complete.
“After starting the dishes at night,” Sassone, 62, said of when she found the time. “I don’t have to be up at a particular time in the morning, so sometimes I’ll bead until 2 a.m.”
Lodato O’Day, who is scrambling to finish her corset after a recent job change, said she can look at particular beads and remember what she was doing when the handiwork was completed.
“This section right here, of the crowd (at the Trombone Shorty concert), was done while watching the entire season of ‘True Detective,’ ” she recalled.
Beading a typical corset while juggling work, family and other tasks can take up to eight or nine months, Lodato O’Day said.
Many members of Les Dames learned beadworking from people who help design costumes for Mardi Gras Indians. The krewe’s women actually have become so adept at what they do, they even have helped some Indians with their costumes, as well.
They share their skills during monthly meetings that krewe members conduct to assist and encourage fellow members to finish their corsets in a timely fashion.
The work pays off, said Patrice Henry, a local social worker. She said once you are in the parade, mugging for photographs and the like, it’s a liberating experience.
“I’m normally a very shy person,” she said. “But after a couple shots, you get out there on the parade route and have a good time. I love doing this with these women.”
Molly Doran, a local massage therapist who went to high school with Lodato O’Day, agreed.
“It’s awesome and it’s fun,” Doran said. “It’s nice to meet women you’re not just meeting through your kids at school. You are excited to be together. It’s awesome. It’s like our own private club. I am totally not a sorority girl, but we all pull for one another here. That’s one thing that makes it so much fun to be a part of the group.”
Dues to Les Dames de Perlage are $230 annually. The krewe solicits parading organizations and receives a small stipend for its participation in a parade. That money, along with dues, assists social causes and pays for the krewe’s small expense budget.