Carter Church’s talents as a costume designer keep him busy working with Carnival krewes in Mississippi and Louisiana all year long. “I’ve always enjoyed Mardi Gras,” the Jackson-born and New Orleans-raised Church said. “It’s a fun time, and it’s fun to watch somebody transformed from one life to somebody else.”
But the creative demands under deadlines have given Church what he jokingly calls a seasonal ulcer. “In November, the ulcer starts kicking up, but once Mardi Gras is over, it settles down,” said Church, who has lived and worked in Bay St. Louis for the last 27 years.
He began his career as an after-school and weekend helper to a neighbor who made headpieces for the all-female Krewe of Iris. When the neighbor abruptly left for a job in New York, the Iris captain looked to Church for help. “She asked me to finish up and I did,” he said. Soon Church was asked to make the men’s costumes for the krewe and again he agreed. “I figured I’d bluff my way through it,” he said. That was 53 years ago. “I’ve been doing Iris costumes ever since.”
Church attended design school in New York briefly and when he came home to New Orleans to recover from an emergency appendectomy, he never returned to school, instead building his design career among local Carnival organizations.
The Krewe of Nereids, Waveland’s all female krewe, came calling in 1970, the year after Hurricane Camille, and except for a brief break, he’s been costuming members ever since.
Church said he has cut down considerably on the number of krewes he works with to around a dozen, including krewes in Lake Charles and Thibodaux, La.. He doesn’t sew for all of them but creates sketches of the costumes instead. He keeps copies of all his creations in binders for reference “so I don’t do the same thing for the club again.”
Among the ulcer-inducing tasks Church tackles every year is rounding up far flung krewe members for costume fittings. “When I first moved from New Orleans to Bay St. Louis, everybody had weekend homes here so it really wasn’t a problem. Since Katrina, people are scattered all over the country.”
Still, it’s easier to bring people in than transport costumes with sequined trains and collars as large as 8 feet across and 6 feet high. “You can’t throw it in back of a car and haul it around to a fitting.” The Krewe of Iris rents two huge trucks to pick up costumes from Church’s studio and take them to New Orleans.
The elaborate costumes aren’t cheap, either. Some king and queen costumes run around $5,000 each, Church said. The cost varies from club to club, he said. “I’ve had them run way above and way under.”
Church’s designs come together with luxurious material and festive sequins, rhinestones, feathers, zippers and notions. He keeps an eye on the prices of each item.
“Feathers have really gotten out of hand,” he said. “Bird flu in South Africa has made ostrich feather prices go from $250 a pound to $600 last year and this year up to $650. That’s a hunk of money for something not really reusable.” One costume can have $1,650 worth of feathers, he said. Trade regulations have caused rhinestone prices to go up tremendously and the cost of lamé, the interwoven gold or silver fabric, jumped from $6.98 a yard last year to $14.98.
With Mardi Gras just a couple of months away, Church, who is 70, has been spending long hours in his studio. He used to spend more time there but after a heart attack and six bypasses, he’s cut back some. He has two helpers who work six or eight months out of the year “doing nothing but make appliques” to embellish the costumes. A couple others help with applying the rhinestones. Everything is done with deadlines in mind and by Church’s high standards. He admits to being finicky, preferring to do all the cutting and sewing. “It’s much easier to do myself than go back and correct boo boos,” he figures.
His tools of the trade are simple: a sewing machine, a good pair of scissors and “a lot of patience.” The most important tool is the glue gun to attach rhinestones that used to be sewn on by hand. “I can’t exist without glue guns,” he said.
“I’m kind of a dinosaur doing costumes (by hand),” he said. “I was taught one way years ago and I’m still doing it the same way. Everybody else is cutting corners. I’m too damn old to change. That’s why a lot of clubs stick with me. I’m one of the few who does that.”