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Dames de Perlage shine in Mardi Gras finery during festival season

Some say that the term, “Big Easy” was coined by New Orleans gossip columnist, Betty Guillad, who wanted to take a bite out of all the “Big Apple” brouhaha back in the 70s. Of course, there are many other theories as to where the name came from. This IS New Orleans, after all.

Dame Julie Lodato plays homage to the Dew Drop Inn.
Kim Welsh

There’s no denying that life in NOLA can be extremely free and easy, but make no mistake. Its residents take their Mardi Gras parades and preparations very seriously. While Chicagoans might pig out on a few packzkis in the office pantry, they still have to work on Fat Tuesday. Meanwhile down in New Orleans, schools go on Mardi Gras breaks and the street parties have been rolling since January 6.

That date signifies the 12th Night of the Epiphany. Christmas is officially over and Carnival has begun. In true New Orleans fashion, 12th night combines religious symbolism, time-honored traditions and the anticipation of another Mardi Gras season in this city like no other.

Although Mardi Gras parades are often blessed with relatively benign weather, this year’s ubiquitous Polar Vortex made for a frigid 12th Night. But the parades went on honoring both Joan of Arc’s birthday and the annual appearance by the Phunny Phorty Phellows.

As the outdoor parades kept the revelers entertained, guests at a crush of festive 12th Night parties were inside anxiously waiting for the marching krewes to reveal their 2014 Mardi Gras theme. It’s always a huge deal with established krewes like Rex and Zulu heading up the nightly newscasts after word of their festival theme leaked out.

The old standard bearers might have gotten the airtime but one of the town’s newer krewes has an extremely compelling storyline. Although they now only have two years of Mardi Gras experience under their beautifully beaded corsets, the all-female Dames de Perlage are destined to become crowd favorites in the years to come.

The 2014 theme, “Ain’t Dere No More” was revealed on the 12th night as the Dames paid homage to New Orleans landmarks that are gone but not forgotten. This preservation of the city’s unique culture is a central theme in all that the dames do. Their stated mission is “to preserve the art and history of perlage so often used in the carnival season by kings, queens, maids, Big Chiefs, Spy Boys and other Mardi Gras Indians.”

The driving (or marching) forces behind the dames are Julie Lodato and her dear friend Christine Clouatre who “stepped up to the plate immediately” when Lodato threw out the idea of having their own Mardi Gras krewe.

As a lifelong New Orleans resident, Lodato grew up steeped in Mardi Gras culture and vividly remembers stomping around in her older cousin’s boots before the two of them marched in various Mardi Gras parades with Archbishop Blenk High School. Lodato’s current day job is a designer so it’s not surprising that she recalls "a beautiful navy blue velvet outfit that was trimmed in white fur along with the typical white marching boot and tassel.”

Flash forward to 2004 and Lodato was asked to join the Bearded Oyster krewe. But after having her son, she decided that sporting a “beard and a merkin under my skirt wasn’t the best thing to do with a little boy in the house. At this point I decided I wanted to do something else.”

After the decision to branch out with a new krewe, Lodato “just started to rally all the women we knew who would be up for this nonsense!”

Seran Williams was one of those women. Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Williams quickly fell under the spell of New Orleans after a few visits. Now a homeowner in Algiers Point, Williams was deemed "down there enough to qualify.” So Williams signed on to strut around town to the tune of Ernie K. Doe’s “Here Come the Girls” in the four parades scheduled for 2014.

But sashaying down St. Charles is just a small part of being a Dame de Perlage. As their name implies, each dame is required to hand bead their headdresses and corsets. Although the final outcome is stunningly beautiful, it’s a long and painstaking process. Lodato said they started beading in June but the “hardcore beading didn’t get underway for most of us until October. The group had a halfway milestone to meet for mid-November so “the pressure was on!”

Pressure gave way to grace once the costumes were revealed. The dames’ 2014 “Ain’t Dere No More” themed perlage ran the gamut from the dear departed Dew Drop Inn to the shuttered Schwegmann’s grocery store. You can see the actual fruits of the dame’s labors in the related slide show.

Like many, Williams believes that the dames have “something special” going on and the fact that a brass band accompanies them only adds to their curb appeal. Lodato said that “having a DJ provide the music for our krewe was not anything that ever crossed our mind. We all know so many musicians in town” and the dames already had a connection to Big Fun Marching Band through Christine.

Dudes were also recruited to escort the dames along the parade routes and help with everything from crowd control to beverage fetching duties. The dudes were dressed in typical second line band attire, which included black slacks, white button-up shirt and a brass band hat that read “Dudes.”

Stating that “no one realizes the commitments this takes until they put a needle in the canvas,” Lodato plans on doing a few things differently next year including recruiting more dudes, building a better trailer and making deadlines sooner. She also said that while four parades is enough, the group is “debating whether or not we can parade two days in a row.”

Although Mardi Gras has come and gone, the Dames are already planning for next year. Lodato has been flooded with requests from ladies wishing to sign on for the 2015 festivities. Ideas for the theme are already being tossed around, too. Lodato said that there are 20 themes on the table and she “can see the two ideas that may end up being our 2015 theme." But in keeping with tradition, the theme will not be revealed until the 12th Night so keep these dazzling dames on your radar and stay tuned!

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