There is nothing like a Dame

In Bill Lanxner, Community, Louisiana Ladies, Sean Spansel, Seran Williams by Lola Magazine

am a Dame de Perlage.  When I suit up for Carnival, what I am really donning is a year-long saga of excitement, despair, rejuvenation, and pride.  Together with the Dames de Perlage, a tight knit, all-female marching krewe, we are a walking canvas of beaded bustiers and feathery headdresses.  Depicting scenes of New Orleans history and pulse, we bring fun and pageantry to the parades down St. Charles Avenue.  I help make Mardi Gras sparkle.

From Mardi Gras Indians to Mardi Gras Royalty, the intricate artistry of perlage, or beading, is arguably the most admired art form in New Orleans, and we, the Dames de Perlage, have it down. Founded in 2012 by Grande Dame Julie Lodato and Grande Dame Christine Clouatre, the krewe is now seven years old. I joined a year after we formed, which means I myself have produced six different beaded costumes for Carnival. Multiply that by 50-plus Dames and you have a new glittery gallery of New Orleans life every year.

Along with the rest of the krewe, I start the beading process right after Mardi Gras. Within that year’s theme, we choose subjects that resonate with locals and intrigue visitors. We bead anywhere — in “sacred perlage circles,” at home, and even in exotic places – on a boat, a mountain, in a piazza, by a river – keeping it secret until Twelfth Night (January 6), when we reveal our new theme for the year. For 2019, it’s “They All Ask’d for You,” as a tribute to the Audubon Nature Institute and inspired by The Meters’ beloved song.

Although most of the Dames are local to New Orleans, there is a far-flung handful, like myself. And, through the Grand Dames’ leadership and the magic of social media, we have managed to cement a network of support and collaboration that helps us create our new suits for Carnival time. I have been both witness to and recipient of the amazing energy generated by the Dames. It’s inclusive, it’s non-judgmental, and a lot of fun.

Of course, everything is not unicorns and rainbows. Occasionally, there arises a serious situation among the krewe, whether it’s a medical emergency, relationship issues, job woes or just a dip in motivation levels. We are quick to offer help, goodwill, or an ear to any Dame who needs it, whether we’ve met in person yet or not. We motivate and offer practical tips to help put any distressed Dame back on track. Sometimes it’s an external crisis – a hurricane, flood, a blood shortage – that spurs the Dames into action. We raise tens of thousands of dollars in funds, collect tons of needed items and provide hours of elbow grease to help.  And through all of this we continue to sew, sew, sew.

Julie and Christine talk about how they came up with the Dames idea. “We were in another krewe, the Bearded Oysters, which we loved. Those costumes were already made for us, so Christine and I started embellishing ours. Out of that grew our need to start our own krewe,” says Julie. “We didn’t think about actually beading until our very first meeting. We were going to glue Mardi Gras beads like some of the other girl krewes had been doing.” Someone there suggested, “Why not bead like the Indians do?” and the Dames de Perlage concept was born. Immediately, help from all quarters poured in with tips on designs, suppliers, and sewing lessons. (Most of the Dames had never even sewn a button before.)  Out of that, a sisterhood was born, a diverse group of women with a desire to learn, help, and have fun. “This is going to be our best year yet,” Julie claims. “We have more diverse experience than ever, and it’s an endearing theme, ‘They All Ask’d for You.’ That one song has pulled us together in a way we haven’t been before.

“It’s thrilling to watch how the Dames have blossomed over the years” Julie notes. “Some have come way out of their shell, made huge life changes and are much happier in their personal life. It’s gratifying. We’ve learned that we will do whatever we can to keep a Dame engaged.” “Being a Dame gives you more than you can get from a singular friendship,” says Christine, mother of three with a full-time job and an owner of The Shack restaurant in Covington. “In addition to getting day-to-day support, we have an amazing pool of knowledge at our fingertips to tap into to help solve just about any problem. One of the best developments in our seven years is our social aid efforts. It has really grown. I never thought that we could be as powerful a force as we are in such a short period of time. Imagine us in ten years! We won’t be a bigger krewe, but we will be stronger in influence and experience and able to do even more good in the community.”

As Christine tells me this over the phone, I can hear her negotiating bedtime with her children. She comments, “Someday soon our kids will be marching along with us.” She also muses, “We all have so much going on in our lives, yet we always make time for each other and ourselves, because the rewards are just that great. Sometimes you need some extra energy to make something happen, and we get that with this amazing group of women, 65 strong, that are feeding you the support you need to get you through.”

A Dame who has been part of the krewe since the beginning is Rachel Nicolosi. She had been looking for an opportunity to be creative in a collaborative way. A friend told her about the Dames, so she jumped on it. “I love the art and the discipline of it, and the family it has become,” she says. “I love the meetings. I often bring one of my kids, to show them what a community is like.” She’s always asked about what it’s like being a Dame. “We’re different, we don’t dance, we don’t all look alike; we’re individuals within a larger group, we’re art,” she says. “Because of the diversity of the Dames, I have increased my knowledge of the world exponentially.” Rachel says that this access to a larger circle is invaluable. “Somebody always knows somebody that has an answer.” She also notes, “Mardi Gras builds community everywhere. My sister in North Carolina has a party every year to make my throws.  My cousin, a polymer clay artist, makes the charms to go with the theme.  They invite their friends to string beads, make bracelets for me, listen to Mardi Gras music and eat king cake. So, in a sense, because of the Dames, there is now another community of like women outside of New Orleans!”

Karen Lodato was invited to join the first year, but other duties, like being a new mother, had kept her away for several years. Her passion for women celebrating womanhood finally overtook her and she joined the Dames in 2018. “I loved the way the Dames felt free to be beautiful, to be sexy, and have it be just about them. This was the creative outlet I needed to get my art out,” she declares. “Plus, the social aid aspect – giving and doing – takes me out of myself and lets me help others.” What Karen didn’t realize when she first joined the Dames was the thrill of parading. “The second I stepped onto the street in my costume, I came alive, with a feeling I didn’t know existed. There’s no word for it, but really, the intensity lasted for weeks afterward.” She continues, “It’s magical, a unique experience to help bring Mardi Gras to the world, that’s how grand a scale it is. To be a Dame is a privilege.”

Of the Dames itself, she says, “Sometimes it’s difficult to build bonds with women for whatever reason. We are all so different and have so much going on, yet we band together easily to support each other, even before we meet in person.” She gets quiet for a moment, and then says, “The Dames offer us as women a platform to shine. So often we are made to feel guilty by society when we celebrate ourselves. That all goes away when I’m suited up and marching with the Dames.”

“All of us have a desire to create something. Yet, I was terrified of coming up with a design worthy of the krewe, and the amount of time it was going to take.  The Dames stepped right up, supported my ideas, and reinforced that I could do it, and I did!” says Angela Faust, who joined in 2018. “My first parade felt like I was in a different reality, it was electric. Seeing us all together in line, cinching each other up, helping with lashes and head pieces, it feels very familial. There is sincere and genuine affection for each other. Then when we step out into the street, I feel an immense amount of pride, knowing what it took – together – to create these pieces, and seeing the crowd’s reactions,” she beams.

In between the design phase and the parade is about nine months of building the costume, in which anything can happen. When there’s a problem – whether personal or with our beading – someone in the group will speak up and we rally. One longtime Dame in particular has been the recipient of such support. Stacey Meany discovered she had breast cancer, and posted it on the Dames private page, as a way of dealing with the blow. “The next thing I know, Julie had rallied the Dames and scheduled a Meal Train. All the slots were immediately filled, mostly by new Dames who I didn’t know. They took turns for weeks bringing meals and keeping me company as I recuperated from a double mastectomy. I got to know them and made new friends. It’s not the first time I’ve been shown the generosity of this group, either. It has carried me through the years. I can’t take it for granted but I know it’s there when I need it.”

As I talk to my fellow Dames, I hear terms like creativity, support, community, service and, of course, fun.  I will be eternally grateful for this time I’m spending as part of the Dames de Perlage, as we celebrate our womanhood and spread excitement beyond New Orleans and on to the next generation. There is nothing like a Dame!