By Isabelle Haines
It’s no secret – Mardi Gras season is also glitter season. The stuff is quite literally in the air. It’s also painted on eyelids, smeared on bodies, and coated on the special throws that krewes make by hand every year. Yet glitter is no miracle product. It is a microplastic that supposedly takes around 1,000 years to biodegrade . It is also a pain in the ass to clean up. So why do we love it so much?
“I think it’s a really profound cultural thing,” says bonafide glitter whisperer Nori Pritchard.
Pritchard has been riding with the Krewe of Muses for three years and decorating the krewe’s signature shoe throws for eight. She is also the co-owner of NOLA Craft Culture, a craft store and workshop dedicated to the local folk art scene. Pritchard met her co-founders and fellow Muse sisters, Lisette Constantin and Virginia Saussy, through making throws.
“We all had that same glitter obsession,” Pritchard says. Glitter has a way of forging these connections – the Muse sisters were drawn to the sparkle, and then to each other. Pritchard and her co-founders also shared a vision of a Mid-City craft store with a carnival season savvy.
“There was a niche that needed to be filled in New Orleans,” Pritchard says. “Every single year the chain stores sell out of glitter. Mardi Gras isn’t something that a national chain can quite wrap its big national chain head around.”
Walking into NOLA Craft Culture is like walking into someone’s childhood dress-up box. Feather boas hang down like technicolor Spanish moss. Muses shoes, Nyx purses, and Mardi Gras headpieces sit atop altars of ribbon and trim. Naturally, glitter has permeated this space from every angle. The shelves are stocked with colorfully-named varieties like “Frosted Starlite,” “Twilight Mermaid,” and “Good Juju.” Most of the glitters are made from a combination of plastic and a light-reflecting material such as aluminum. From there, the glitter kingdom quickly divides into factions: ultrafine, chunky, holographic, UV-reactive, and so on. According to Pritchard, these varieties are the bread and butter of the glittering process.
“You spread your glue onto your throw, which in our case is shoes, and then sprinkle the glitter over the wet glue, let it dry, brush it off, and then repeat,” Pritchard says. “The basic process is actually pretty straightforward – it’s all the ways that it gets reconfigured, that people mix up those same core ingredients that make it so interesting.”
While Muses shoes are a part of New Orleans iconography, our collective fixation with sparkly things goes beyond handmade throws. Before shredded plastic there were crushed beetle wings, and before that, flakes of mica stone. There is a theory at the center of this grand glitter mythos – scientists think that humans have evolved to associate sparkling light with the reflection of the sun on freshwater, a necessary component to our ancestor’s survival. This idea is supported by a series of studies in which thirsty participants consistently chose glossy materials over matte ones. The research suggests that our attraction to glitter is not only historic – it’s hard-wired.
Glitter as we know it was first manufactured in 1934, when a New Jersey cattle farmer named Henry Ruschmann invented a machine that turned scrap plastics into pixie dust. Yet plastic glitter has been under fire in recent years as more and more of it collects in the ocean. The environmental concern has caused cities like Sydney, Australia to start phasing out plastic glitter from their Mardi Gras parades. Such bans have coincided with the rise of biodegradable glitter , a variety made from eucalyptus tree extract instead of plastic. While local craft stores like NOLA Craft Culture sell biodegradable glitter, the plastic kind is still widely used, and with residual glitter ending up in Lake Pontchartrain or the Mississippi River, the glitter question becomes more pressing each year.
Every Mardi Gras season, Nori Pritchard and her fellow Muses glide above a forest of reaching arms and grasping hands. In the urgency of the crowd, there is an evolutionary inclination. In the street the next morning, there is a growing environmental concern. So what is everyone really reaching for? For shoes and beads, but also for our own survival. For a fighting chance.
As Pritchard puts it: “Getting a shoe just feels like you’ve had such a moment.”