A string of coincidences has led me to discover the extraordinary work of Carlotta Bonnecaze, a designer of Carnival costumes and floats in 19th century New Orleans. Last weekend I made a very brief trip to Paris to attend the seminar Corps à Corps avec la Mode http://histoiredemode.hypotheses.org/page/3. I have been invited to present my research on Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix to the Histoire de Mode society next March, which is an exciting prospect! While in Paris I took the opportunity to visit the great-granddaughters of Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix and was shown photographs of the designer, her daughter and granddaughters, on a visit to New Orleans, during the First World War. Margaine-Lacroix’s daughter was married to a French-American from New Orleans whose antecedents had the surname Bonnecaze. As I am visiting New Orleans in a week’s time I thought I would do an online search for the Bonnecaze family – and discovered Carlotta.
According to Tulane University she was the first woman and first Creole to design for the Mardi Gras and worked exclusively for the Krewe of Proteus, from 1885 -1897. They make available online their archive of her work http://www.louisianadigitallibrary.org/cdm/search/searchterm/Bonnecaze,%20Carlotta/mode/exact
The great authority on Carnival, Henri Schindler, devotes a chapter to her extraordinary, fantastical designs in his book: Mardi Gras Treasures: Costume Designs of the Golden Age https://books.google.co.uk/books?isbn=1565549112 Schindler relates that despite searching for twenty years in an effort to discover information about her, “the life of Carlotta Bonnecaze remains shrouded in mystery.”
I may never discover whether the mysterious Carlotta was an antecedent of my friends in Paris, but I am thrilled to have discovered her work. She displays an extraordinarily inventive and at times surreal imagination.
Another brilliant female designer whose name slipped into obscurity for almost a century until, according to Schindler, the New Orleans author and historian Charles L. Dufour identified her in his 1981 book: Krewe of Proteus : the first hundred years.