If it sounds fun to construct one of these suits, Montana suggested otherwise. It’s a rigorous duty, he said, a sacrifice and a lifetime commitment. He began sewing when he was six years old, making his first suit when he was nine. Montana spoke proudly about his family’s legacy. His late father, “Tootie” Montana, was the revered Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas “Hunters” tribe. Darryl, a fourth generation participant, subsequently assumed the role. “Between my father and myself, we’ve dressed a hundred years,” he told Artsy. Each year, he spends up to $5,000 on his costume. “Around September, my life only consists of going to work and going home to sew.”
One of his suits can require 300 yards of marabou (down feather trimming) and three pounds of feathers. It’s exhausting to assemble it all. Each feather requires individual wrapping and decoration with a smaller feather called a “tip.” When he puts on the suit, Montana feels like a different person, a spiritual energy overwhelming him. Yet he wouldn’t wish the time-consuming process on his worst enemy. “This stuff is an ass-kicker,” he said. His back hurts. But when the day comes to finally reveal the construction, the resulting glory makes the toil worthwhile.
These days, the Mardi Gras Indian parade is a celebrated point of pride for the city, but years ago, violence pervaded the marches. Knife fights and score-settling between rival factions was common. Now, said Montana, the tribes “fight with needle and thread”; the costumes themselves “separate the men from the boys.” The very concept of masculinity for the Mardi Gras Indians is deeply tied to sartorial prowess. Here, there’s nothing manlier than tailoring bright, elaborate garments. Grown men boast their own prettiness.