Guest Post: A Brief History of Rio Carnival Costumes

November 24, 2013

Guest post by Helene Cooper: The Costumes of the Rio Carnival

The costumes of the Rio Carnival are known for their flamboyance, colour, embellishment and design. The Carnival is one of the most celebrated annual parties in the world. However, the costumes weren’t always about glitz and glamour; to begin with, skin was hardly ever on show.

Carnival Float
Image provided by Dragoman

Most things that become immensely popular often become commercialised and lose their tradition; the Rio Carnival is no exception. The annual event that captures the attention of millions worldwide has gone through many facelifts since the country’s colonial days when the first costume emerged.   With ideologies changing, finances altering and the introduction of new materials, the costumes have had to evolve.

Death was once the pivotal inspiration for the costumes with skull masks and devil outfits becoming regular features. Other themes that were fondly considered for the Rio Carnival included:

  • Donkey, chimp and bat costumes
  • Elderly disguises
  • Pierrot
  • Doctor
  • Domino
  • Prince, Mandarin, Maharaja and Rajah costumes

These costumes however experienced a swift death following the ban of masks in 1685, the Great Depression and the price of materials escalating in the ‘30s. Masks were banned from carnival celebrations and anyone who was seen wearing such accessories was either whipped in Rio´s public square or became a convict to Sacramento Colony depending on the colour of their skin.

Rules and regulations loosened in 1950s due to Rio’s weather conditions being too hot for heavy costumes. This was the time when women began to feel a lot more comfortable in their own skin, choosing two piece swimsuits over full length costumes. Not only did this allow women to feel cool in the Rio heat, it also gave them freedom of movement.


Woman in Carnival Costume
Image provided by Dragoman

During the ‘70s the Sambadrome was built and samba schools were organised; something that remains to this day. Each samba school chose its theme, which allowed for a wider variety of costumes, sparking further creativity. The costumes became more vibrant and daring, although it wasn’t until the ‘80s when men could dress how they wanted, with many opting to cross-dress.

Carnival Dancers
Image provided by Dragoman

Since the first carnival in 1723 there is one tradition that remains intact: making your Rio Carnival costume. It is a true art form with many people taking to their sewing machines, embroidering and embellishing their costumes by hand. Each sequin, hem, feather and bead is individually sewn, requiring skill, technique and patience from the costume makers. The BBC followed Lucile, a carnival costume maker in a documentary to discover how these glorious creations come to life; you can view the documentary here.

Helene Cooper, a travel enthusiast, has seen most of what South America has to offer, trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, exploring the Amazon jungle, seeing Iguazu Falls as well as visiting the glorious city of Rio.

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