What goes into a handmade Mardi Gras throw? Glue, glitter and (of course) throwing a party
Ask any Mardi Gras reveler a favorite Carnival season memory, and it might include catching a treasured throw from the giant Kern-designed floats and its riders.
Parade throws during Mardi Gras come in all shapes and sizes. Most of them are beads and other cheap plastic toys that excite first-time parade goers. But a true Carnival veteran knows what makes a good throw: they’re homemade and unique to krewes, such as shoes or coconuts, that end up resting on home mantles of the reveler lucky enough to catch one in a sea of people.
But these throws’ origin stories involve hours of work, bottles (and bottles) of glitter and the hands of many float riders crafting together ahead of their krewe’s time to roll.
Lisette Constantin, co-owner of the NOLA Craft Culture shop and Muses rider, has been hosting throw decorating parties at her store for years, and it’s those friendships that have developed over the years that make Carnival season all the more joyful.
“For the most part, people come over and bring a bottle of wine or some bubbly and some snacks,” said Craft Culture co-owner and Muses rider Lisette Constantin. “It's a real community-like process — everybody likes to hang out together. So you're working with glitter and shoes, but you're having a party at the same time.”
The tradition of throws predates the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration, according to theHistoric New Orleans Collection. Ancient Romans and medieval French revelers gave out whips made of goat hide and food, respectively, at festivals that marked the end of winter. The iteration we know today – with beads, cups and doubloons galore – came from The Rex Organization in the early 20th century.
But the treasured homemade throws take their inspiration from the famous Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s coconut, with the earliest reference in 1910, according to the club, and each krewe puts their own twist with what makes their throws unique.
At NOLA Craft Culture in late January, the community workspace has transformed into a private crafting space for several Krewe of Muses float riders. The beloved duck-themed parade, which rolls down its normal Uptown route Feb. 16, is under a month away, which means it’s crunch time for krewe members who still need to decorate their famous shoe throws.
Inside the Mid-City shop, shoes covered in fine glitter are drying in just about every corner. Decorating shoes the way these members do is a tough task — in one part of the room, some float riders troubleshoot how to secure a crystal fringe to the edge of a platform heel, while other members figure out what’s the best way to drill on a plastic mini martini glass.
But a Muses shoe isn’t complete until there’s the Muses label and year attached to it.
Muses rider Meghan Frederico used yellow, glitter puff paint to spell out Muses and glued the lettering on a Mardi Gras-colored wedge. The finishing touches included three sparkly roses that were attached between the straps of the corked heel.
“My favorite part about glittering is actually coming here,” Frederico said. “As you can see around the room, there are multiple people working on different issues, and we kind of bounce ideas off of each other and we help each other out.”
There’s a science and a precision that goes into making these throws, and because hot glue is involved, it’s even a little risky. It’s between the layers of fine glitter, sealant, bits and pieces that make each shoe unique.
The shoe throw was first started by Muses member Nicola Wolf during the krewe’s inaugural parade in 2001. Each Muses member gets to take 30 shoes each on the float, and now, with around 1,100 riders, that means more than 33,500 shoes are thrown during the parade.
“When you give it to a total stranger, it's indescribable. I've had people chase me for blocks, because I pointed to them because I like their costume or their sign or whatever. And I'm like, ‘yes, you come here,’ And then they literally run for blocks until I can get the shoe to them,” Constantin said. “Then it's like victory — it's so much fun.”
Muses member Benita Plaisance said her best throws are when she finds discarded, tattered shoes that she then turns into art. Muses source their shoes everywhere, from thrift stores to donations and even picking up heels that someone might have left behind after a night out in the French Quarter.
This year — as she does every year — Plaisance made a couple of fan-favorite shoes with LSU and Tulane colors, and a few Saints and Pelicans-themed throws as well. Plaisance also found old costume jewelry to add to some of the heels for an upscale feel.
“I think it's a love story — a love letter to the city about how you feel,” Plaisance said about the range of shoes she’s made since 2006.
Similar to turning tattered shoes around New Orleans into art in Muses, the members of one Houma krewe head to their backyard to begin decorating their throws.
Krewe of Tradition co-founder and board member Whitney Loupe said the tradition of collecting pecans from family members and friends and then painting them started in 2013, the year of the krewe’s inception.
“It's a sustainable throw,” Loupe said. “So it is natural, something that doesn't clog up our waterways or sewage systems.”
Krewe of Tradition members have gathered every Thursday ahead of Feb. 19, when they roll, to craft together at the Intracoastal Bar. Loupe sat at a table and turned pecans into magnets by using industrial-strength glue. Other members were seen making brooches and earrings from the pecans, contributing to the more than 300 pecans that get passed out in downtown Houma.
“I like to do magnets sometimes because it's on your fridge every single day, and you get to take a look at it,” Loupe said. “And it just reminds you of not only creativity within the area, but also preserving a tradition within this area.”
This year, members have been inspired to make pecans of drag queens, nature and famous singers. The challenge is often trying to figure out the details on such a small canvas. This year’s Krewe king Robert Leger finished one inspired by Louisiana musician Doug Kershaw — using markers, he drew on Kershaw’s signature long hair and mutton chops and transformed a mini eraser into a fiddle.
He took an easier approach for his second pecan throw: Leger added stripes of green and gold on to a purple-painted pecan to make what he called a “Mardi Gras-style football.”
“We've just got tons of paint and brushes and glitter and little googly eyes, and it's nothing in particular. Just have fun with it. Make some art,” Leger said. “Make something that someone will appreciate for Mardi Gras.”
And even though a night of crafting is bound to be a good time, Loupe said it’s the getting together, listening to music and celebrating Carnival that is healing to many of the members.
“All of this is just some kind of form of healing ourselves, especially through all the things that we've endured over the past few years, that it's just really nice to be able to come together and express ourselves and do therapy together,” Loupe said.
In Terese Aiello’s kitchen in late January, the table has been converted into a crafting zone. Twenty miniature glittery alligators were nearly complete — they just needed a touch of hairspray to seal in the sparkles.
Aiello is the founder of the Bayou Babes, a co-ed marching krewe that started in 2017 out of her love for Cajun and Zydeco music and as a celebration of Louisiana culture. The group’s signature throw is a hand-decorated mini pirogue, a small boat used by Cajuns to traverse through the marsh and bayous.
They hand the special throws out during the Krewe Bohème parade — the krewe of choice for many local artists — which will roll through the Marigny and French Quarter on Feb. 3.
“You can just show up and costume almost anything that you want to and in any manner you want to,” Aiello said. “We work a lot of hours … (and) spent a lot of money to create these things to give out to everybody for free, but it is just absolutely worth it,”
Some of the plastic glitter gators were glued to miniature abstract art paintings Aiello made and turned into magnets. Other gators were also added on to a few pirogues.
This year’s theme is Night of the Living Art, but the boats can be decorated in whatever way the members would like, Aiello said. For example, one of the boats is of a king cake baby rowing a wooden frog, another is blinged out in sparkles with miniature pink flamingos and white feathers, and there’s even one featuring painted blue tentacles that emerge from the boat.
With Aiello in her kitchen-turned-craft room was krewe co-captain Christine Gasiorowski, who was painting a dragonfly with sparkly blue nail polish that she would later attach to a pirogue. She said she often incorporates winged animals and butterflies into her throws, and this krewe allows her to push her individual creativity.
She said she also loves seeing the excitement on the parade route, especially when kids’ faces light up after receiving something unique.
“I tell anybody if you're having a bad day or if you are body conscious in any way or shape or form, just go be a part of a parade. It's the most lovely thing,” Gasiorowski said. “Everybody loves you. And you just feel so good, and it's so fun to give it away to someone and they give you joy back.”