A bustier corset hand-stitched from sequined appliques. A jeweled, feathered headdress. A toilet plunger embellished with chunky glitter, beads and plastic baby dolls.
Folks in other cities would likely be hard-pressed to find such items anywhere, much less in the back of their closets. But every year in New Orleans, they become part of the landscape, as residents drop everything to sew fantastical costumes, brush up on their arts and crafts, and coat the city in an explosion of sparkle and plumes.
Mardi Gras, the culture of costuming and the inspiration behind it all are the focus of a new film that debuted Sunday at the New Orleans Film Festival.
Directed by novice filmmaker Lindsey Philips, “The Exceptionally Extraordinary Emporium” follows designers, Mardi Gras Indian chiefs and lovers of all things shiny through the 2014 Carnival season as they pick out supplies at Jefferson Variety, a fabric and crafts store as unique to Louisiana as krewes like the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
“Costuming is such a wonderful medium for people,” Philips, a 29-year-old Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduate, said of her film, which was screened at the Contemporary Arts Center. “I love how people who do not consider themselves artists in any way make these amazing creations.”
Philips’ film was one of seven shown as part of “Louisiana Stories,” a collection of short films that depict aspects of life in and around New Orleans in ways ranging from sad to funny and from narrowly focused to broadly themed.
“The Exceptionally Extraordinary Emporium” largely focused on the wonder of Mardi Gras, as did a movie titled “Flotsam,” about the street sweepers who clean up after the parades.
Mardi Gras and costuming were also the subject of the 7-minute film “Big Chief,” about Big Chief Tugga, the youngest Mardi Gras Indian chief in New Orleans, who serves as the leader of the all-children Red Flame Hunters.
“On Mardi Gras Day, you can be what you want to be,” Tugga says in the brief film, dancing, singing and donning a light blue feathered suit that he took all year to make.
The same kind of Carnival spirit was captured in “Andrew with Great Fanfare,” a story about a 14-year-old musician who dreams of becoming the drum major and leading the Roots of Music marching band through Mardi Gras’ biggest parades.
Not every film was joyous. “The Ballad of Little Pam” was about a woman in Delhi, Louisiana, who struggles with family and spirituality after she tells her mother she’s a lesbian.
And “Mr. Joe Lives Alone” examined the hardships of growing old in rural Louisiana, focusing on a man who worked as a sharecropper on a plantation and then had to take care of a wife with Alzheimer’s disease.
Even “James,” a story about a street artist who sells his work in the French Quarter, had a tinge of sadness to it.
But all the filmmakers expressed a similar sentiment: the importance of getting the story right.
“I felt a huge responsibility to show this appropriately,” said Olivia Motley, the director of “Flotsam,” who said she was fairly new to New Orleans. “Because when you make a documentary, you are borrowing someone else’s story and culture.”
Philips agreed. Her challenge, she said, was to show how people undergo a transformation through costuming, whether that means hiding behind a hand-crafted mask or using fabric, feathers and glitter to accentuate bigger-than-life personalities.
Jermaine Bossier, the Big Chief of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters, for instance, describes his Mardi Gras transformation as “spiritual.” His handmade suits, which cost up to $1,300 each to make, tell a story every year of the history and struggle of his heritage.
Jenna Adis, a member of the Krewe of Muses, said her krewe uses costuming as a way to give back to the community and participate in a bigger sort of transformation.
“It’s like, ‘Let’s make New Orleans a little bit shinier,’ and not just with glitter,” Adis said.
Lisa Tracey, co-owner of the Jefferson Variety store, had a different view.
“I think people down here like to make a statement,” she said. “For some reason, they like to be weird.”
Although Mardi Gras transformations tend to rely on similar materials, they have wildly different results, Philips said. And that, she added, is what makes Louisiana so special.
“There are so many ways to approach costuming here,” Philips said. “It’s just really overwhelming. And really beautiful.”