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Sheila Gray of Vancleave fashions looks fit for Carnival kings, queens

Meet the seamstress who made Mardi Gras

Sheila Gray of Vancleave has been creating the ornate costumes for the Gulf Coast Carnival Association court since 1980. Learn how she became involved in making Mardi Gras sparkle.
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Sheila Gray of Vancleave has been creating the ornate costumes for the Gulf Coast Carnival Association court since 1980. Learn how she became involved in making Mardi Gras sparkle.

There's nothing else quite like a Mardi Gras ball. The presentation of the court, the tableaux, the traditions -- and perhaps the apex, the dazzling costumes worn by the king, queen and their royal court.

Behind every rhinestone-, bead- and sequin-enhanced gown or tunic is a seamstress who put the outfit together. For the Gulf Coast Carnival Association and two other krewes, that creator of magic is Sheila Gray of Vancleave.

December to January is the busiest time of year for Gray, who usually starts the process in the late summer into fall before the next year's Carnival season. She has a separate sewing room at her home, which includes counter space for cutting, a manequin, a sewing machine and bins of fabric and other accoutrements a professional seamstress needs.

Gray began her affiliation with GCCA in 1980.

Sheila Gray of Vancleave has been creating the ornate costumes for the Gulf Coast Carnival Association court since 1980. Learn how she became involved in making Mardi Gras sparkle.

"I had been sewing before that for the public -- pageant dresses and other things. The captain for Bon Vivants couldn't find anyone to sew" some costumes for them in 1978, and Gray agreed. "It was a Christmas theme, with toy soldiers."

After that, someone asked her to sew for an entire court, and her Carnival career took off. Over time, Gray became overwhelmed and now has narrowed the krewes to three: Les Cavaliers, Revelers and GCCA.

The captain of a krewe carries a lot of responsibility, including presenting the theme of the upcoming ball. Each of the three krewes' captains works with Gray and her daughter, Angela Polite, who draws the costumes. Once Polite has completed the drawings and the captain signs off on them, Gray gets started on gowns and the king's and the dukes' costumes, as well as their accessories. After all, a dazzling Carnival presentation isn't limited to just clothing. Headgear (for women), hats (for me), trains and capes continue the theme and complete the look. In fact, shelves in her work room are lined with showgirl-worthy headgear resplendent with colorful feather plumes and sparkling sequins.

"Angela and the captain will talk about the things that can be done and the things that can't," she said. "She puts a lot of thought and effort into the designs."

Mother and daughter research themes -- a job that technology has made a lot easier, Gray said.

"When I first started, you pretty much were limited to encyclopedias," she said, recalling subjects such as ancient Egypt. "Now, you can look anything up on the computer."

Measurements are taken at the initial fitting. Then the court has a meeting where everyone tries on their costumes; Gray loads up the costumes and takes them to a member's house, where it's a combination meeting and party. Adjustments are made after that as needed, then the final fitting. For GCCA, the first fitting usually is held during the Thanksgiving weekend, when college students are home for the holiday.

If you've ever wondered how court members can survive the holidays' ever-looming calories and still fit into their costumes, there's a modern secret weapon Gray thankfully employs: stretch material.

"It's wonderful," she said.

How about those headpieces? How do women keep them in place? There's a reason the women walk slowly, using good posture, with their arms held gracefully out to the side.

Gray is behind the scenes prior to the balls to make sure everything is just right. Then she gets to see the results during the ball.

"The presentations on the floor," she said, when asked what she enjoys the most. "Then the lights hit, and seeing how grand it all looks.

"As long as I can still enjoy doing it, I'll still do it," she said.

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