"I think that everybody should be able to have the Carnival that they want. That’s what I want for Carnival, for all of us."—Elisha Bartels
One of the biggest criticisms of the modern T&T Carnival has been the popularity of the bikini and beads type of mas. It has been called vulgar, unimaginative, and a sure sign of the degradation of the national festival.
But there has been significant pushback on that narrative from the designers and the masqueraders who support them. They say a change has come, and sexier costumes will lead the way.
For the lovers of the earlier days of mas, when Bailey and Berkeley ruled the roost, there may be very little in the catalogues of Harts, Tribe and Yuma to inspire their devotion. Peter Minshall’s carnival presentations have always been hailed for the brilliant way they encompass design, meaning, and messaging. His ability to create rivers in town is unmatched.
Minshall’s name is often called upon as the standard to which the modern Carnival band can not hope to reach. Usually as a criticism of their lack of cloth, and his skilful use of yards of fabric. But true Minshallites know that he dabbled in nudity before. Most tellingly for his band Papillon. His Queen, "Fly, Fly Sweet Life," was fully dressed in a bodysuit that featured painted nipples and pubic hair to simulate nudity. It caused a stir.
Designer for Yuma, Keisha Collette would like to challenge the notion that her designs are lazy and lack creative thought. She works with her seamstress very closely on the placement of everything on her costumes.
She acknowledges that her designers are sexy. "We could want to be sexy," she says with an impish grin. "We want to play mas. We want to have a good time. We don’t necessarily want all our things out, but we want to be sexy!"
But Collette doesn’t consider them skimpy. "It’s not a bad word, it’s just not my style," she says.
"My masqueraders, for the most part, will find that I provide a costume that is sexy but is not skimpy. But then an older, more mature person might say, that is skimpy." What about nudity? Elisha Bartels plays J'Ouvert with 3 Canal. Recently she has evolved into complete toplessness, save for paint, and her long dreadlocks.
"I had been saying for years that I should really just play J'Ouvert as naked as possible because that is me.
"J'Ouvert is really about rebirth," Bartels explains.
"For me, that is why I play J'Ouvert the way I do, because it is about me coming back to myself, and resetting myself and reconnecting with myself, so I want to be completely myself. Entirely myself. That is the mas I play for J'Ouvert, I play the mas of me."
What does not occupy her time while she is on the road are those who are shocked by her nudity. As Bartels says it, if you come to J'Ouvert to be shocked rather than experience the magic of the festival, then you are welcome.
This year lovers of naked mas will have a song that understands their joy perfectly. In the bridge to his 2020 hit Gamal Doyle, better known as Skinny Fabulous, sings, "I want to get naked, naked, and jam on somebody!"
Doyle says when he entered the studio he had the hook, "Oh, the place, it hot!" It was recorded on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year. But in recording and re-writing, the joy of playing mas nude, or nearly nude, entered the lyrics.
Doyle is also a bandleader of Oxygen Mas in St Vincent. He says as a bandleader he appreciates the responses his consumers have had to their designs. "We know there is a certain part of society that really would repel the idea of getting more and more naked, and so it didn’t bother us." Because those people are not his target audience.
The designers of Doyle’s band are Trinidadian. "In 2020, I think, more and more there’s no way, at least at face value, to differentiate a Trinidadian costume versus a Bajan costume versus a Jamaican costume because we’re all sewing from the same fabric," he says.
Collette, herself, has just released a costume designed for a band that is based in St Lucia. She has designed for Carnival bands all over the region.
This may validate the critics of the modern Carnival costumes. The ones who say, the problem they have isn’t the nudity, but the fact that there is little one can do to make the costumes look different from each other. If in every section there are swimsuits adorned with beads and feathers, then it’s only its colour that can differentiate one costume from another.
But if the people who play mas and are paying for their costumes are happy with the current state of undress, the situation will remain.