Mardi Gras is a celebration that brings to mind images of lavish parades, gaudy beads, king cakes, and for some, bare chests. There are many Mardi Gras traditions that are portrayed as quintessential by the mainstream media, but can flashing truly be considered one of them?
The history of this over-the-top holiday goes all the way back to the pagans, but today it's a necessary precursor to the Christian practice of Lent. Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday," is the last hurrah for Christians before they swear off something they love for the 40 days leading up to Easter.
The history of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans goes back to the early 1800s, and the numerous and long-standing traditions are sacred to locals. While some people think the time-honored "Throw me something, mister!" accompanied by a showing of boobs is a true Mardi Gras tradition, locals insist that it's actually not.
So how did "beads for boobs" become considered a mainstay of parade-going behavior, and why do women flash at Mardi Gras? The trend is much more recent than you may think, and a big part of the celebrations.
Dating back to the time of the first Rex parades in the 1830s, trinkets were thrown out to excited parade goers, which was reminiscent of Medieval-era parade behavior. At first, sugared almonds were tossed out to the crowd. These were replaced by glass beads, which became a common item handed out to parade-goers around the 1880s. The inexpensive necklaces came in the three traditional colors, purple, gold, and green. Although they were a cheap and much-loved trinket, throwing glass objects into a crowd of intoxicated people was not the safest thing to do. The glass beads were eventually replaced with much safer aluminum and plastic in the 1960s.
In Southwest Louisiana, "krewe" is the group designation given to groups of revelers who host balls and floats during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Each krewe has its own signature style and flair – and each gives out exciting swag during the parades.
Exactly when the tradition of krewe members giving out throws began is unclear. Some say it goes back to the late 1800s; others maintain it started in the 1920s. The throws can be anything from beads to plastic coins with krewe names stamped on them, to stuffed animals and hand-painted coconuts. However, beads have long been the favorite.
An 1889 issue of the New Orleans Times-Democrat newspaper provides a titillating — albeit unclear — window into the lascivious behavior of female revelers that had begun cropping up at Mardi Gras at the turn of the century. The newspaper expresses disapproval regarding the "degree of immodesty exhibited by nearly all female masqueraders seen on the streets.” Were these women baring their wares for beads? One can't be sure, but it seems they were undoubtedly women behaving badly — at least by the standards of the time.
The creation of the "flashing for beads" tradition is widely credited to the women's lib movement in the 1970s. It is possible that people attending Mardi Gras were looking to escape from the constraints of their everyday lives and wanted to feel the freedom of completely letting go.
In other words, maybe some women get joy out of shirking society's expectations that women be modest and prim. Plus, the massive consumption of alcohol at Mardi Gras probably help to lower women's inhibitions.
Whatever the reason, the act of flashing steadily gained popularity through the '80s and '90s.