Hear the words “Mardi Gras,” and you might picture vibrant parades and parties in New Orleans, elaborate masks and costumes, and traditional desserts like King Cake... or you might think about Mardi Gras beads. Specifically, you might think about women flashing their boobs in exchange for Mardi Gras beads. But although the image of women flashing their breasts for beads is a common one, the practice doesn’t have as long a history as you may think.
Beads have been part of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans since the 1890s, when a “Carnival King” first threw fake jewelry to his (clothed) “subjects.” But flashing for beads didn’t begin until the 1970s. There are a few different origin stories for this behavior. Dr. Wesley Shrum, a Professor of Sociology at Louisiana State University, published his research into ritual disrobement at Mardi Gras in 1996. He discovered that flashing for beads during Mardi Gras began in the French Quarter in the mid-70s, when a nudist group decided to try to get passersby to flash them, a grown-up version of “I’ll show you mine and you show me yours," he says.
Soon, he says, nudists began enticing would-be flashers with the promise of beads as a reward. By the early 1980s, it had become common for both men and women to flash their boobs, butts, and sometimes even genitals for beads on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. In fact, flashing for beads was so ubiquitous that by the time Dr. Shrum attended his first Mardi Gras in 1983 “it was so common that when I tried to find out when this all started, people said, ‘Oh it’s been going on forever, it’s just a Mardi Gras tradition, it started a long time ago,’” he says. “Well, it hadn’t started a long time ago, it had only been going on for around five years.”
Dr. Shrum says that it isn't just women flashing for beads; instead, he says that people of all genders flash for beads because of the power of the free market. "Is it predominantly a female ritual?" Dr. Shrum asks. "I say no. It’s more visible, so we think about it that way, but it’s actually not the case."
Dr. Craig J. Forsyth, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, researched Mardi Gras flashers for a report published in his journal Deviant Behavior in the '90s. He agrees that the practice began in the 1970s, although he says that flashing for beads began in the gay community. “It really spread, and by the time we got to the ‘90s, it was hot and heavy,” he says, attributing the growth in part to the fact that the police stopped trying to stop these displays of nudity as flashing during Mardi Gras grew more popular. “I don’t know exactly when it started to slow down, but it just gradually slowed down," he adds. "Though it could come back.” He suggests one of the reasons for the decline could be the lessening of shock value as the activity became more common. Unlike Dr. Shrum, Dr. Forsyth's interpretation is that flashing for beads is predominantly practiced by women. He notes that some people do so spontaneously while drunk, while others plan ahead, intentionally wearing flashing-friendly outfits; he's previously described flashing for beads as "a playful form of exhibitionism."
Bobbi Mannino, a representative of MardiGrasNewOrleans.com, says that for the vast majority of New Orleans residents, flashing for beads is not a part of Mardi Gras. She says that in her observation, it’s primarily tourists — mostly women, but some men, too — who will flash for beads, mostly staying within a specific area of the French Quarter. However, she adds, Mardi Gras beads are involved in local, family-friendly traditions. Krewes — groups that participate in Mardi Gras parades — throw beads and other prizes to parade-watchers, including many children.
“When you grow up in New Orleans, the first words you learn are, ‘Throw me something, mister!’ because that’s what you say for the whole season of Mardi Gras parades,” Mannino explains. Along with the parades, local New Orleanians celebrate Mardi Gras with traditions such as balls, King Cake, and costumes. Flashing for beads, she says, "is just not the real true meaning of what we feel Mardi Gras is all about, and I truly believe that goes for every single local New Orleanian."