Oh, To Be Queen for A Day

By McKenna Smith

“The tradition of Mardi Gras balls and the debutante season has become a way to keep the culture of the city of New Orleans alive” said Heidi Hayne—a New Orleans native and Mardi Gras Queen. Mardi Gras Royalty, a New Orleans tradition that is as old as the celebration itself, is, to some, the most important aspect of Carnival, while to others, the custom seems irrelevant, or even antiquated. Those not from the city, and even those who are, often find it difficult to understand the pomp and circumstance of it all. 

Almost exactly a year ago, Heidi Hayne donned her heavy bejeweled white dress, a gown that took a year to make. She stood in the mirror, confident in her stride, she had practiced for months to be the Queen of the Krewe of Nereus. 

This year she remains a part of the celebration as the returning queen, her role being the welcoming of the new queen. As Nereus celebrates its 125th year anniversary, the Krewe’s queens from the past thirty years were honored at the Nereus ball. An elaborate celebration filled with men’s dress tails, floor-length ball gowns, elbow length gloves, and lengthy champagne toasts. Nereus, “the old man of the sea”, was honored by the glittering trident held by the King and the intricate details incorporated into the design of the stage meant to represent an ocean palace.

Since before the Civil War, Mardi Gras Krewes in New Orleans have held up their elite members to positions of royalty. The daughters of members are recognized as the queens of the balls and parade the city in ornamented gowns and jewels. Though the Krewe’s have grown less secretive and rightfully less exclusive over the years, many of the practices remain shrouded in mystery. From the selection of members to their extravagant celebrations, very little is known, or rather shared openly about each group’s individual nomination procedures. The process of becoming Queen occurs primarily behind the scenes, with familial connections playing an important role. 

The culture of young women participating in Mardi Gras Royalty is largely intertwined with their entrance into society vis a vis their debutante ball. It is something the elite young women of New Orleans are raised to look forward to and there remains an element of familial obligation. Heidi states: “it’s a celebration of the people that raised me” and went on to describe how she views her debutante as a unique tradition and cultural practice of her family. 

Historically, these balls have served the purpose to connect the eligible, elite men to young women in hopes of creating marriage arrangements among the top echelon of society. This begs the question; how could such a seemingly archaic practice continue in this age of women whose self-efficacy has grown tremendously since the conception of this practice? 

“Making your debut in New Orleans is not about finding your husband” Heidi said. “Most people laugh at that.” 

A change has occurred, and the tradition has evolved; the point of the festivities is no longer marriage, interestingly, these young women are discussing job opportunities and making connections that will serve them in a professional sense. Heidi describes this succinctly as something akin to LinkedIn. While queens and maids must still abide by certain restrictions, they are not so different than those required by organizations such as sororities. 

This is a hopeful shift in both Mardi Gras and debutante culture, as both continue to grow in terms of gender equality. Although the first parading all-female krewe was met with a slew of vegetables thrown at them by onlookers, according to Mardi Gras New Orleans, there has been a wave of all-female Superkrewes, such as Muses and Nyx, in recent years. New Orleans, it seems, is progressing into the 21st century, while maintaining its deep-rooted connection to the past. These customs are some of the folds that make the city so unique and although historically entrenched in inequality, these traditions are growing to be more inclusive on the feminist front. As Heidi said, “[it has] shifted more into a ritual about making new friends and making connections with other New Orleanians”.

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