“Deflating is the word we use over here. It was very deflating when everything went down. It’s taken the wind out of our sails,” says Dwayne Dixon over the phone.
Dixon is the business manager for SugaCayne Designs, a Carnival arts organization and Mas design company. He’s talking about the COVID-19 pandemic that has shaken the world this year with no slowing down.
But Dixon is resilient. He and his business partner Candice are working from home in Toronto. Although they can’t create their usual splendid Carnival costumes, they manage to find alternatives. Candice tells me she’s been crafting African printed face masks using prints she had hoped to add to her Carnival designs— not medical grade, but a stylish solution for those looking for some type of facial protection against the coronavirus.
Candice Dixon has been a designer for the past fifteen years. By her own account she: “sort of fell into costume design ten years ago and [has] been doing that ever since.” She has worked as a Section Leader in the Toronto Caribbean Carnival and crafted costumes for Carnivals in places like Miami and the Cayman Islands.
Before the world shut down, this time of year was when revellers would be dreaming of Carnival season. Although Trinidad and Tobago Carnival falls in February, its major Canadian counterpart— the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (or Caribana, as some know it colloquially) is a summertime affair. The Toronto Carnival’s Grande Parade takes place the first weekend of August, with ongoing Carnival events taking place during a week of lead-up.
But despite the global situation, the spirit of Carnival has not deflated in the hearts of Carnival artists who make these celebrations their life’s work.
The world has been put on pause. We’ve been forced to take a break and sit down with our thoughts for a while. There’s opportunity in this to take time to learn and reconnect. I used it to learn about the art of crafting Carnival Mas costumes.
Historical Significance of Costumes in Carnival
Traditional Mas (short for “masquerade”) celebrations have somewhat faded from many carnival stages around the world, but Carnival in its truest sense has roots that run deep, aiming to tell the emancipation story of enslaved peoples in Trinidad. From 1738-1838, white upper class citizens primarily celebrated Carnival in Trinidad before Lent each year. At this time, enslaved Africans held parallel “Canboulay” celebrations.
In 1838, slaves were emancipated in the British colonies. With this newfound freedom, African descendants increasingly participated in Carnival, flipping the European celebration on its head and reclaiming their power by becoming the primary performers of Mas. They used witty character costumes to mock the colonial planter class.
Most Ole Mas characters in Trinidad developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, often as satirical interpretations of people in society. In his article “The Devil and the Bed-Wetter: Carnival, Memory, National Culture, and Post-Colonial Consciousness in Trinidad,” historian Philip W. Scher says that “each character had a unique costume and attendant performance style.” Some of the most popular traditional costumes included African-influenced Moko Jumbies — stilt walkers, or Dame Lorraines— voluptuous female figures meant to mock the wives of wealthy European planters.
In the 1980s, you could look to celebrated designers like Trinidadian Peter Minshall for Mas creations like “Papillon” (1982) with brightly coloured butterfly costumes or “Rat Race” (1986) depicting frightening rats with long, grotesque teeth and tails for very lifelike interpretations of animal characters.
With the rise of “Pretty Mas” around the 1990s, however, some creators fear that traditional Carnival characters are being eclipsed with current costuming trends.
Bikini-clad revellers are now a common sight to see out on the road. For many women who play Mas, it’s empowering and freeing to show skin, but it’s become increasingly difficult to interpret what character is meant to be expressed through “Bikini Mas.”
“When you watch a band on the road in Toronto, you cannot tell me what they are playing,” says Trinidad-born, Toronto-based designer Clarence Forde. “When you watched a band back in the day… you watch that band, and you know ‘Hey! They’re playing the glory of Greece. Hey, they’re playing The Fall of Rome. That’s Fancy Sailors.’ …Immediately as you saw a band, you could recognize what they’re doing.”
Practical Elements of Construction
“I started doing costumes with my uncle who was the captain of the band that was in the yard,” says Clarence Forde on the phone from Toronto. “At the age around about six. I was breaking the rules of my parents because my parents were involved in religions. In those eras they felt that anybody involved in doing costume work was doing work of the devil.”
But despite the “devil’s work” argument, Forde’s passion had been sparked, and he’s been designing ever since. He’s 75 now, with a lifetime’s worth of experience. On the phone, Forde recalls almost the entire emancipation story of Carnival from memory, weaving through a beautiful and nuanced explanation of the history.
“The first Carnival was not called Carnival. In 1837 it was called Freedom Fête,” he says, before launching into a description of how slaves’ descendants reclaimed the Carnival space from colonizers and made it their own.
The conversation soon shifts toward Forde’s expertise with costume design. How do you get started? I ask. The first step to crafting any good costume is imagination, he tells me. Translating an idea or a concept into a physical demonstration that the public can actually recognize. “Building a costume you must see something and fantasize [on it]. How you can make it more elaborate but still maintain what it presents,” he says.
He recalls a time around 2005, making a costume called Dead Bird in the Desert entirely from strings of beads— no feathers. “My wife got her hands burnt up because she was using the hot glue to string the beads from one wire to the other,” he says.
Next, a wire bender decides on size and scale. Forde says he uses see-through wires, fibreglass to band the wire together. Quarter-inch rods, to hold the design as stiff as possible. Nothing too heavy, he says. The characters can’t dance in excessively heavy costumes.
Some construction elements depend entirely on the wearer. You have to measure the person you’ll be costuming. Larger costumes might be “triangular costumes”— mounted on frames with two wheels at the front, one wheel at the back. The wire frame should be covered by surface elements if possible “to create an illusion.” On Forde’s bird, a long tail descended behind the dancer to cover the back of the triangle.
Mas bands will often present their costume ideas to the public months in advance. In a 2015 CTV News video, celebrated Mas band leader Louis Saldenah says costumes, on average, can cost anywhere from $200- $1500.
For SugaCayne Designs, the cycle of production usually works as an assembly line once their Mas camp production ramps up for the season. “We try to go piece by piece. It’s head pieces, then it’s neck pieces then it’s arm and leg bands, it’s bodywear and once you’re focusing on one thing your assembly line becomes a lot easier. You know what you’re doing for the next couple hours to get that done,” says Candice Dixon.
Innovation and Technology
Although many costumes start from simple materials and traditional wire structures, there’s been an increase in innovative technology, making costumes lighter-weight for increased wear-time in the hot sun. Materials like 3D printed elements even allow ease of wear for very large King and Queen competition costumes.
For the Dixons, harnessing these technologies to breathe new life into old traditions is the goal.
They’ve worked with Ryerson University’s Design Fabrication Zone in Toronto since 2017. Some construction elements the Dixons use include 3D printing, laser cutting and Worbla, a type of thermoplastic typically used for cosplay outfits. They also launched the world’s first virtual reality Carnival experience in Trinidad in 2019.
While employing these technologies, the Dixons say they’re always aiming to preserve the traditional while still pushing for innovation. One recent Mas theme they created was the Inkwell project, using different types of ink, denim and dyes as costume elements. Researching the theme opened up a rich history for the designers: “Diving in and discovering the dye pits in Africa where indigo originated from. The fact that there were indigo plantations in Haiti and Jamaica, that a lot of our ancestors worked in these plantations and were enslaved in these plantations,” says Candice. “We do feel like we’re in the in-between. We’re connected to generation next and we’re connected to the generation before us,” says Dwayne “So we felt that it was our responsibility to see what we can do to bridge that gap.”
They also say the key to furthering interest in Carnival design is giving the art the respect it deserves in formalized education.
For many, 2020 has been a write off. Six-plus months in and we’ve seen a pandemic hit the world, followed by an eruption of protest movements against global anti-Black racism.
But it’s clear despite the unprecedented circumstances, the Carnival spirit refuses to let up. Its foundations are in resiliency. The artists who have learned these traditions over lifetimes harken back to masqueraders of times past, putting their faith in elaborate costuming as a form of storytelling. A means to give voice to their shared history.
During this period of rest, there’s time for education towards building a better future. We may not see the lavish Carnival parades we’re used to in cities like Port-of-Spain, London, Toronto or Miami, but there’s time now to reflect and reconnect to the art and the history behind Carnival.
For those used to celebrating the splendour of Carnival without knowing the heritage, it’s a good time to sit, reflect and learn. As Dwayne Dixon puts it, knowing your own “why” for participating in Carnival is always something to bear in mind. Perhaps next year we will come out with a stronger sense of understanding.
(Phillip Scher, 469. “Copyright Heritage: Preservation, Carnival and the State in Trinidad”)
Scher. “The Devil and the Bed-Wetter: Carnival, Memory, National Culture, and Post-Colonial Consciousness in Trinidad,”110-111.)