New Orleans' all-women krewes, or parading troupes, have enjoyed monumental popularity in the past decade. Bursting membership lists, strong crowd turn-out, and the arrival of the first new krewe to roll in New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina ensure that this energetic presence is here to stay.
Membership for the all-women Krewe of Muses filled up quickly after its inception in 2000. The troupe's parade chair, Dionne Randolph, says "we're riding almost 1,000 members on the floats, and then we have another 500 or plus on the waiting list." She chalks it up to "being a diverse group. Some of the old-line krewes were what you called 'blueblood krewes.' We don't care about your socioeconomic class, we don't care about who it is you know, long as you come in and have a good time."
Randolph also notes that "there was definitely a void when we formed. Traditionally in Mardi Gras, there are a few women krewes, but it has really been dominated by men."
Muses' popular show, held the Thursday before Mardi Gras, is known for its satirical floats and signature shoe throws (novelties sent flying to enthusiastic parade-goers). Second only to the Zulu Social Aid's decorated coconuts, Muses' twinkly footwear is one of the most coveted Mardi Gras objets. Of the shoes, Randolph says "you get all kinds of color glitter, and different embellishments - rhinestones, beads, anything you can think of." It wouldn't be a surprise to find designer heels touched up by the Muses. Randolph remarks, "I've seen people decorate Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks. And no two shoes are alike."
Krewe of Muses floats are accompanied by a range of individualized troupes. Says Randolph "we have triggered a wave of adult marching groups: majorettes, dance groups, men that dance. We have an eclectic flavor that creates that buzz and that excitement about us."
One such group is the parading ensemble the Bearded Oysters. Founded in 2004 by "mother shucker" Karina Nathan, the Oysters had 40 members its first year, and has grown to over 500. Nathan maintains that all-women krewes "work harder to be better. They really care what the audience wants, and they're really listening - they want to be accepted, and they want to be popular."
Like the Muses, the Oysters are known for their campy attire. Members don "fringe sleeves, flapper headbands, bras with oyster shells," says Nathan. Beards, which range from fake fur to rhinestones, are required, but merkins (pubic wigs) are optional. Of the latter, Nathan jokes "some of the girls will put plastic crabs in them or LED lights."
The Oysters' throws are environmentally conscious. "We are trying to be a trendsetter in terms of green krewes," says Nathan. "This year we decorated 3,000 recycled oyster shells." The group is concerned about the large percentage of Mardi Gras beads that end up in the garbage.
New Orleans' newest female krewe, the Krewe of Nyx, made history this year as the first krewe born since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. Despite floats dampened by rain, spirits remained high on Wednesday's inaugural roll. Nyx' theme was "NOLA Reality Reigns," with humorous creations such as a "504 Jersey Shore" ensemble (504 is New Orleans' area code), and "Keeping up with the Street Kardashian," set in a replicated streetcar. According to wwlv.com, captain Julie Lea was inspired to start the all-women krewe when she was foiled by Muses' colossal waiting list. In its first year of ridership, the 500-plus krewe already has an impressive wait of its own.
Established in 1917, the Krewe of Iris is New Orleans' oldest all-women krewe. A daytime parade, it has a more traditional carnival look, with riders sporting full-length masks and white gloves. Kristin Danflous, a third generation Iris captain, took the post over from her grandmother in January of 2011. Danflous says the experience is "a rite of passage for a lot of mothers and daughters." At nearly 100 years of age, membership shows no sign of wavering - they have over 900 participants.
Randolph, of Muses, sums up the Mardi Gras experience of female paraders: "we can still do it all -- work, have a family and have a good party."