In the airy Central Business District warehouse that houses Southern Costume Company (951 Lafayette St., 523-4333; www.sccnola.com), owner Wingate Jones is comparing two period outfits.
"This is cotton velvet. It's heavier and more luxurious," he says, hefting an aubergine production-quality costume worn by a court guard character in The Other Boleyn Girl. Then he pulls out a stiff, cheaper looking King Arthur costume. "This is plastic polyester velvet with fake inserts. The workmanship is about the same, but you can feel the difference in the material."
The self-avowed "costume snob" has earned the right to be discriminating. After a career as a film industry costumer spanning two decades and including work on films ranging from Ferris Bueller's Day Off to Batman Forever, Jones, a Hollywood, Calif. native, opened a costume shop in January that caters to both the motion picture industry and New Orleanians who require costumes for parades and parties. His goals are twofold: By offering a one-stop wardrobe shop complete with two offices, industrial-grade Juki sewing machines and fitting rooms, he plans to help build the infrastructure necessary to support Louisiana's film industry. And by making those same production-quality costumes and services available to New Orleanians, he hopes to elevate the city's costuming standards.
"Since Katrina and the oil spill, we've been in the national spotlight, and a lot of what we showcase is Mardi Gras," he says. But the problem is, we showcase all this acetate polyester stuff. When you go to toast Zulu (in an acetate tunic), it doesn't move or flow. We ought to be showing everybody durable goods. I'm hoping to find one or two krewes who will buy into the concept. Instead of an acetate tunic, let's do it out of cotton."
Jones says his plan to create Mardi Gras costumes from traditional, long-lasting (albeit more expensive) materials goes against the grain of the consumption-oriented costume culture propagated by chains like Party City. In a place where residents proudly proclaim to be "so far behind, we're ahead," this somewhat old-fashioned sense of conservation is consistent with the prevailing local eidos.
"We need to take a step back in time and go back to what kings and queens used to look like," Jones says. "In the old days, when we started Mardi Gras, there was no such thing as polyester and plastic."
Jones points out that in addition to being superior when it comes to aesthetics and durability, authentic costumes have an intangible benefit: They transform the wearer. "There is a magical moment when you put on a costume," he says. You become a different person. It is even more magical and transforms you further if it is not plastic. It adds credibility, authenticity and reality. That is an integral part of the notion that we are real here. [Mardi Gras] is not just about drinking and frivolity and — " Jones pantomimes flashing. "The society here takes it very seriously. So let's take costumes seriously."
Southern Costume Company customer Sean Laughlin, who rented a knight costume complete with multiple layers, pantaloons, boots and a chain mail headpiece for his role in a Trinity Episcopal School Parents' Group comedy sketch, agrees with Jones' sentiments.
"(The headpiece) was kind of heavy, but it was cool," Laughlin says. "People were telling us that ours was the best Trinity sketch they ever saw. They said, 'You guys came on stage, and you looked like the real deal.' And we said, 'Well yeah, we had real costumes on. We were really knights.'"