7 surprising facts about Brazil Carnival costumes

November 10, 2023

The Carnaval do Brasil (Brazil Carnival) is known worldwide for its colourful, creative and exuberant costumes.

Besides general facts about Brazil’s Carnival, do you know how the costume tradition started and what some of the details mean?

Here are 7 surprising facts about the costumes worn during Brazil’s Carnival 

1. The original costumes came from Europe

The first costumes and masks appeared in Brazil’s colonial days – a time when the Carnival arrived from Europe, where it was popular in Catholic countries such as Italy. Dressing up increased and decreased over the decades, for economic, legal and political reasons.

2. The costumes have changed over time

Preferred costumes (or disguises) varied greatly, depending on the era. 

In the early days of the republic, for example, they included skulls, donkeys, devils and princes. Meanwhile, the ‘30s saw outfits such as Apaches, clowns and Hawaiian women. After the 1950s, the costumes started shrinking as society became more liberal.

3. The costumes were once used to paint the sea

Between World War I and World War II, Rio Carnival participants would march along the beaches in Rio de Janeiro, then dive into the sea wearing crepe-paper costumes (with swimsuits underneath). The dye would run from the paper, colouring the water for hours.

4. The costumes are heavily influenced by African culture

African culture has also greatly influenced the Carnival in Brazil, from costumes to make-up. 

In Africa, natural objects had special meaning, and were often used as decoration. This can be seen in the details on today’s outfits and dancers’ colourful body paint.

4. All Carnival costumes form part of a theme

Every samba school that takes part in the Carnival parade chooses its own theme. Some change their theme yearly, while others keep the same one. 

Individual schools are split into alas (“wings”) and each has a Carnival costume specific to what it does, showing a different part of the theme.

5. Each costume is a true labour of love

Brazil Carnival’s elaborate costumes take thousands of hours to make. 

The basic outfit is often machine-sewn, while the millions of beads, sequins and other details are added by hand. 

Their prices can range from USD 900 to more than USD 10,000 for the most elaborate options.

6. Costumes are often discarded at the end   

When the Carnival ends, the painstakingly and lovingly made costumes are simply put away, or discarded. This signifies the shedding of the old, and embracing whatever is to come as a New Year begins.

Want more than facts about Brazil’s Carnival costumes? Some Portuguese (Brazilian) phrases for Carnival, perhaps?

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