Gowning Achievement: Bay’s Carter Church helps make Mardi Gras, by design
By Cassandra Favre
Feb 18, 2014, 18:20
At Carter Church Designs, Church and Sarah Worrel work diligently on the costumes for Mardi Gras. Church is a renowned renowned maker of Mardi Gras costumes. Located in Bay St. Louis, Carter Church designs and creates costumes for about 12 different Mardi Gras krewes in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Down in Bay St. Louis' historic Depot District lies a place like no other.
It's a glittery world of sequins, feathers, elaborate costumes and the Mardi Gras man himself, Carter Church.
Long before the carnival season arrives on the Gulf Coast, Church and his crew are hard at work on the costumes for the holiday's festivities.
Church is a 56-year veteran of the Mardi Gras costume design business and is still going strong.
A Lifetime of Love for Design
Church was born in Jackson, but his parents moved him to New Orleans when he was about 10 months old.
"When I was 17 or 18 I went to the Traphageni School of Design in New York," Church said. "I stayed there for seven months, then returned to New Orleans because of a ruptured appendix.
"So I started working on Mardi Gras headpieces with a friend."
A captain with the Krewe of Iris asked Church to work on the headpieces for the krewe.
"I did that for a number of years," Church said. "Then, they decided to put men in costumes.
"It just grew from there over time."
Design me something, mister!
Church sketches and designs costumes for about 12 Mardi Gras krewes in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"Some of the Louisiana krewes I work with are the Krewe of Iris, Sparta, Noblesse," Church said. "I also design the costumes for the Krewe of Nereids in Bay St. Louis."
Each year, the different krewes have different themes.
"The theme for New Orleans' Krewe of Iris is 'rocks'," Carter said. "One costume has gem rocks, another has rock n' roll and another has a design of a crocodile on it and is named Crocodile Rocks."
According to Church, the Krewe of Nereids keeps its designs a secret each year.
"It's a tradition that the names of the court are also not public," Church said. "The courts of the New Orleans krewes are usually named ahead of time in magazines or at a coronation ball.
Tools of the Trade
There are many materials that compose a costume and Church orders them wherever he can find it.
"I order Swarovski crystal rhinestones from New York," Church said. "I purchase sequins from New Jersey.
"I also order fabric in bulk from New Orleans and Josette's in Biloxi."
Glue and feathers are also used in Church's creations; however, those items are becoming harder to find at a cost-effective price.
"They have stopped selling glue in bulk," Church said. "So, that's been harder to find.
"The ostrich plumes we use are more expensive due to the outbreak of bird flu in South Africa two years ago. The cost has gone from $250 a pound to about $650.
A Nereids Tradition
A group of professional and business women from Waveland created the Krewe of Nereids in 1966.
"Now the club includes members from all Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Diamondhead," Nereids member Dolores Richmond said, "as well as members from others state from Georgia to Louisiana.
"This is the only club on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to have their own parade and own their own floats."
According to Richmond, the secrecy surrounding the Nereids court and theme is a long-standing Mardi Gras legacy.
"It's part of tradition," Richmond said. "Some of the older established clubs in New Orleans maintain this same tradition of secrecy.
"I believe some of the newer groups don't keep it as much of a secret."
The Krewe of Nereids has worked with Church for about 30 years, Richmond said.
"There's no one like Carter," Richmond said. "He's renowned everywhere in the Mardi Gras world and has been written up in several publications.
"He's delightful to work with and his designs are second to none."
King of the Ball
Church has been named king about eight times.
"I've been king three times for the Krewe of Iris," Church said. "I have also been king for the krewes of Sparta, Nemesis, Diana and Nereids.
Church said the highlight of his life was being king of Nereids.
"It was very special being honored locally," Church said. "I love Bay St. Louis, it is truly 'A Place Apart', the place I want to live.
"People here accept you for who you are."
The "Krewe" of Carter
It's been about 18 years since Susan Earles first started working with Church and she said it's the most fun job she's ever had.
"It gets hectic sometimes," Earles said. "But watching the outfits evolve from wire and tape to a beautiful costume is just amazing.
"Carter is an expert, a master at what he does.
"Susan helps with the collars," Church said. "pluming or feathering them out.
"She also creates a punch list of what I forget to do."
Sarah Worrel has worked with Church for about five years.
"She's a huge part of it," Church said. "I don't know what I'd do without her."
"It's never dull here," Worrel said. "It's fun."
Worrel makes the appliques, which are the designs that are placed on the costumes.
"First you take the pattern," Worrel said. "Next, you draw it on felt, paint in glue and then lay the sequins down. After that, the appliques are glued onto the costume.
"I've always wanted to make costumes."
In her spare time, Worrel designs and creates costumes, stuffed animals, jewelry and other accessories for her Japanese animation-based business Anipirates.
"Mr. Carter is cool," Worrel said. "He's a nice, fun person to work with."