7 surprising facts of Brazil carnival costumes


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

But do you know how the tradition started and what some of the details mean?

Brought to Brazil from Europe

The first costumes and masks appeared in Brazil’s colonial days, 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.

Costumes have changed over time

Preferred disguises varied greatly depending on the era. In the early days of the republic, they included skulls, donkeys, devils and princes. The 1930s saw outfits such as Apaches, clowns and Hawaiian women. After the 1950s, the costumes started shrinking as society became more liberal.

Painting the sea with colourful outfits 

Between the first and second world wars, Rio carnival participants would march along the beaches and then dive into the sea wearing crepe-paper costumes (with swimsuits underneath). The dye would run from the paper, colouring the water for hours.

Adding an African voice to the parade

African culture has also greatly influenced the carnival in Brazil, including the costumes and 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.

All carnival costumes form part of a theme

Every samba school that takes part in the carnival parade chooses its own theme. Some change it 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.

Each costume is a true labour of love

Brazil’s carnival costumes take thousands of hours to make. The basic outfit is often sewn by machine, 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.

Goodbye to the old, hello to the new

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

Do you go to carnival? Is there a carnival where you live? Do you like to dress up and does your costume have any special meanings? Share your experience in the comments! 

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Juliana is the Head of Research and Senior Portuguese Language Expert. She was born in Minas Gerais in Brazil where she studied Social Communication and Journalism. Later she studied Portuguese Literature and Language and did an MA in Digital Media, Culture and Education and another one in Management. When she’s not studying, she loves dogs, travelling and dancing! Her favourite food is pão de queijo (that’s Brazilian cheese balls if you didn’t already know!)


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