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    Rio Carnival Costumes History

    Posted on 19 April 2014

    Samba and Carnaval costumes as we see today at the parades have a long historic background.  They have evolved and changed dramatically, since the appearance of the first costumes in Brazil´s colonial days.  At first, they came from Europe with aristocrats and nobles.  During this incipient phase of the Carnival in Brazil, costumes had different approaches, uses, and etiquette.For some people, costumes gave the power to act unlawfully.  To others, they gave the courage to express different desires and fantasies.  But to the majority, costumes provided the simple and priceless sense of freedom and enjoyment.  Used in luxury balls, street parties, samba-schools, or even at the beach, Carnaval costumes use in Brazil had several momentum.  On this article, we will review the origins of these costumes in Brazil´s Carnaval, understand their cultural importance over the years, and see some of their different styles and uses.

    The use of costumes and masks had, in all of Brazil, over seventy years of success, and peaked from 1870 until the decade of 1950.  It started to decline after 1930, when the price of the materials to produce the costumes – cloth and ornaments – got higher.   The disguise, or costumes that embellishes young guys and girls, were slowly reduced to the fewer possible, in the name of freedom of movement and to escape the heat stroke of the hottest time of year.

    The most famous disguises of the Brazil Empire days, and beginning of the Republic were the skull, the old man, donkey (ears and all), the doctor, the bat, the chimp and the devil, father John, death, the Prince, the mandarin, the rajah and the maharaja.  These costumes and disguises started to decline sharply after the great depression.  Classic costumes such as Italian dell’arte comedian,domino, pierrot, harlequin and columbine – broadly used by merrymakers, started to disappear as well, due to the lack of reason to exist since the Police banned the use of masks on halls and streets...( It is a known fact that since 1685, the use of masks were  heavily forbidden and minimally allowed during brief periods.)  This forbidding was taken seriously, needless to say that already in the XVII century, law enforcers were very rigorous: Rio de Janeiro Governor Duarte Teixeira Chaves ordered through proclaim that all Negroes and mulatto using masks should be whipped in Rio´s public square and all whites using masks should be convicts to Sacramento Colony.)

    The Use of Masquerades costume was very typical.


    However, on the 1930’s, some costumes mentioned above, were still in use and resisted,  with the masks included.  Amongst them the apache, the cad, trickster (t-shirt with horizontal stripes, white pants, straw hat, red scarf around the neck), the old lady, Spanish woman, peasant, clown, Tyrolean, Hawaiian woman and the “woman from Bahia” or Baiana.

    Slowly, men started to prefer white trousers and sport-shirts, reaching the point they started to use shorts and bare bust.  However this happened only after the 1950’s.  Women started to wear lighter costumes, and finally started wearing two pieces bathing suits and a couple of ornament necklaces.  After three centuries of Carnaval, the bikini, and bare bust costumes also came into scene because of Rio´s heat.

    This illustration from a magazine in 1909 called a "Careta" shows how the costumes were popular.


    The first Brazilian Carnaval Ball

    European carnaval started on the streets, with masquerade parades and floats; and also on closed environments with invite only balls costumes and masks.  The Rio de Janeiro Carnaval, certainly the first in Brazil, was celebrated in 1641 (according to most Carnaval historians) and promoted by governor Salvator Correia de Sá e Benvides as a tribute to King Dom João IV, restorer of Portugal´s throne.   The festivities lasted for a full week, from Easter Sunday onwards, with street parades, fights, races, dirty and masked street groups (called “blocos” in Portuguese).  Another historic Carnaval celebration took place in 1786, which coincided with the festivities to celebrate Dom João’s marriage to Princess Carlota Joaquina.   However, the very first recorded mask ball took place on January 22nd 1840, on Hotel Italia, at Largo Rocio, the same location where the São José theatre and afterward cinema, at Tiradentes Square, would be lifted in Rio.   The entry used to cost two thousand réis, with full supper included.

    Below, a flyer showing a typical Pierrot costume.



    Carnaval balls however, became popular on spectacle houses only after the 1870’s. Entertainment establishments such as Pedro II Theatre, Santana Theatre and even popular establishments such as skating rinks, the Guanabara Club, and Societé Française de Gymnastic, which organized balls with a more open and popular characteristic, however with some VIP social area too.
    Carnaval spreads through Balls

    Carnival expressions such as the Great Carnival Societies, shindigs in family houses, outdoors balls, children’s balls soon multiplied across Rio.  After all, some balls acquired national and even international fame, taking place at glamorous clubs, hotels or theatres: in 1908 the first high-life Carnaval Ball took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  These balls continued to expand until the 40’; In 1918 the traditional “artists´ ball” at the Fenix theatre; and in 1932, thought to be the first official ball at Municipal Theatre in Rio.  The Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater Ball led the way to a number of other costume balls in Brazil.   Later, legendary Balls at prestigious hotels came into scene: The Gloria, Theatre Palacio, Copacabana Palace Hotel, Urca Casino, Atlantic Casino, Copacabana Casino, Quitandinha (in the city of Petropolis), and Automobile Club of Brazil, to mention the most well known.


    In 1935, the “Oranges Guild” built a carnival hall, shaped as a ship that “docked” at a castle terrace.  Some of the most joyful balls took place over there three or four Carnivals in the late 30´s.   The Municipal Theatre started the first luxury costume contest at first only for women, and later in the 50’s, men´s costumes contests were opened as well.  The balls in Rio which were attracting the most crowds were the Botafogo, Fluminense, Flamengo, Vasco da Gama and America balls.  Later, after the 1970´s and 80´s, costume balls became decadent because of the excessive nudity and lack of purpose, exception being the ultra-luxury and expensive balls, like the Copacabana Palace Carnival ball.

    Sea Swimming with Costumes 

    At the balls, merry-makers would perform several kinds of dances which varied from polca, lundu and tangos to samba music: Marchinha, Frevos, Jongos and Cateete.  All participants sang, danced and “made cords/cues”.  As for the costume ocean swim tradition, merrymakers would sing to the top of their lungs samba reference songs, as well those presented by new albums and municipal music bands. 

    The costume ocean swim became a habit during the gap between the first and second World War in Rio.  The street carnival bands and its merrymakers would wear costumes made of crepe paper and after marching through Flamengo and Copacabana beaches, would dive into the ocean.  The result was that the ocean would be “painted” for hours since the crepe paper faded heavily. A normal swimming suit was used underneath those Carnivals’ and fleshy garments.  

    Navy uniforms were also very popular in those days...



    Confetti and “Corsican battles”

    The confetti, the coil and the perfume launcher: these three elements were a must between the beginning of the century and the decade of 1950, at the Brazilian festivity events.   They helped to cheer the Brazilian hall-type Carnaval, as they also cooperated for the bigger success of the “Corsican processions” or “Corsos” in Portuguese, which gave Rio street Carnaval, another amazing chapter.  Here, the confetti battle constituted its peak.    The trend of “Corsos”, which began shyly after the arrival of the first cars, would reach their moment of glory between 1928 and the 1940’s.  The “battles” consisted of Corsican carnivals’ march of convertible cars with the tops down, ornamented with colorful cloths and pennants, driving families or merrymaker groups around Rio´s center.  The revelers would sit not only on the car seats but on the top, specially the ladies in costumes with very short skirts, singing or throwing coils and confetti on the by passers that piled up on the sidewalk to see them pass.


    These motorized merry-makers also played with the occupants of the neighboring cars with cars driving around slowly.  They joined the procession throwing bundles of confetti and thousands of meters of coils that binds the cars and piled up on the avenues each night.  The perfume launcher was also used in profusion, while the fellowship with the by passers broadened not only through the perfume launcher spray – that made acquaintance, flirting etc possible – as well as the momentary ride on music dispute sung by others.   Each town had their Corsican place, and in Rio de Janeiro it took place mainly ate Rio Branco avenue (old central avenue).  At certain point however, in Rio many Carnivals “Corsican battles” extended to seacoast avenues, reaching Flamengo beach.

    Almost as a consequence of the Corsican carnivals which disappeared with the advent of limousines and closed top cars – the confetti battles started then to be held in determined locations.  These had organized neighborhood fans or strong street carnival groups and developed a “territorial dispute” – like a corner competition or street dance.  During the weeks or months that foregone Momo´s King, these cheering fans and street carnival blocos ( called in Portuguese “blocos de rua” ) organized parties with kilos of confetti and liters of perfume launchers.   Such battles often went until morning and some of them exceeded the excitement of the “legitimate” Carnaval days.

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