Feb 5, 2024 - Things to Do

A Carnival costume designer gets a museum exhibition

Watercolors by San Nicholas show a pair of Carnival costume designs, side by side. On the left is a man's design, with a green plumed hat and cape, and on the right is a woman's gown, with red feathers and a long train.

Carnival costume designs by San Nicholas. Images: Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum

A new New Orleans French Quarter exhibition highlights Mardi Gras costumes created by a former resident of the neighborhood.

Driving the news: Wayne Phillips has worked at the Louisiana State Museum for nearly three decades, and he serves as curator of costumes and textiles and curator of Carnival collections.

We caught up with Phillips about the exhibition and the friendship he shared with designer San Nicholas, and we're sharing the Q&A here. It's been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How he met the designer, San Nicholas: "I included him in a group exhibition I did of 20th century costume designers.

  • "The so-called Golden Age costume designers, who worked in the 19th and 20th century, have gotten a lot of attention … but the ones working since WWII work a little more anonymously. … These are incredibly talented people who mostly work behind the scenes.
  • "He was a very persnickety person, shall we say, when it came to people he let into his circle. But over time, he grew to trust me."

Nicholas grew up in the French Quarter, Phillips says, and faced a difficult, impoverished upbringing.

  • "From a very early age, he showed a lot of skill at drawing and design. My sense is he was really almost an artistic prodigy because he had no artistic education as a child.
  • "The heartbreaking part is his father mocked him for his artistic skill. … But something deep in San's soul made him keep going."
  • Nicholas managed to get to New York to study design, and eventually returned to New Orleans and began working as a carnival costume designer.

On Nicholas' legacy: "He wanted the women he made costumes for to feel beautiful and confident, and he wanted the men he designed costumes for to feel masculine and strong.

  • "When you look at these illustrations, you can tell his talent immediately. All these drawings are done in a formal way with beautiful watercolor renderings, and if you compare them to the finished costumes, it blows your mind."
A headshot shows Wayne Phillips, smiling and wearing a tie.
Wayne Phillips is the Louisiana State Museum curator of costumes and textiles, and curator of carnival collections. Photo: Courtesy of Phillips

The parade that Phillips won't miss: "Rex."

  • "Rex has such high standards for the beauty of their floats and the themes, which are always so interesting and well thought-out, sometimes years in advance."

His favorite restaurant for a celebration: "The Palace Cafe on Canal Street."

  • "If you're lucky, you sit on the second floor in the windows overlooking Canal Street."

An under-appreciated Mardi Gras tradition: "Cajun Mardi Gras."

  • "It's completely different from what we term 'urban style' in the big cities. … It's a very unique tradition that in many ways is actually more similar to Mardi Gras traditions from centuries ago, with costume styles that are satirical and mocking."
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