When Exactly Did The 'Beads For Boobs' Tradition Start In New Orleans?

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. 

  • The Beads Themselves Have A Long History – And Were Originally Made Of Glass

    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.

  • Over Time, Beads Became One Of The Most Common And Sought-After 'Throws'

    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.

  • Women Began Getting 'Immodest' In The Streets In The 1880s

    Women Began Getting 'Immodest' In The Streets In The 1880s
    Photo: E. J. Bellocq. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.

  • Beads-For-Skin As We Know It Began In The 1970s With The Women's Lib Movement

    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.

  • The Tradition Comes From The French Quarter – Not Mardi Gras In General

    Although most people associate Mardi Gras, in general, with flashing, the truth is the tradition was born in the French Quarter and stayed there. The Quarter is one of the oldest parts of New Orleans, and it also happens to be "party central" with its loud and raucous bars and strip clubs.

    In the minds of locals familiar with the longer history of Mardi Gras in the city, breast flashing isn't really an authentic part of the tradition of Mardi Gras. Instead, it's more likely a result of the general party vibe of the neighborhood.


  • Some People Go The Full Monty For The Most Treasured Throws

    Legend has it that some people will go "the Full Monty" to receive the more coveted throws. Some of the goodies given out at Mardi Gras parades are seen as more special or rare than others, which can supposedly lead to participants taking off not just their shirt, but all of their clothing. One example of a rare and treasured throw is the Krewe of Zulu's hand-painted coconuts.