The streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter run the gamut from gauche to grandiose. The same can be said of the city’s fashion sense. Ursuline nuns, Storyville pinup girls, and Mardi Gras Indians all traveled on the same streetcar. It still lumbers up and down Canal Street, past the daiquiri stands, t-shirts shops and the remnants of the city’s grand 20th century department stores. Tourists make up most of the streetcar’s passengers today, snapping pictures of oddly dressed transients as they migrate downriver from Canal into the French Quarter.

Royal Street begins at Canal and bisects the Quarter, continuing past Esplanade into the Marigny. New Orleans’ art and antiquities often find their way here, where galleries and historic homes coexist with gay bars and street musicians. The area provided both wardrobe and locations for the popular FX television series American Horror Story: Coven, which crafted its third season from the city’s history and fashion sense.

The outrageous anthology series featured in its third season a self-contained mini-series focusing on witchcraft and voodoo in the Crescent City. Two famous New Orleanians inspired the main roles: French Quarter villain Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) and famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), who are embroiled in a 200-year feud.

LaLaurie’s mansion occupies Royal Street’s 1100 block, a popular stop on ghost tours moving up and down the street nightly. Guides, standing in front of the building’s imposing wrought iron gates, describe mutilated slaves found chained in the attic following a house fire in the 1830s. Ghosts continue to haunt the place as the madam of the house presumed responsible for the crimes escaped and fled to France, living there until her death.

Laveau was a Creole woman and contemporary of LaLaurie, although historians debate the extent of their real life interactions. She conducted voodoo rituals in Congo Square (now Armstrong Park on Rampart in the Treme) and also worked as a nurse and hairdresser in the French Quarter. Her daughter, Laveau’s namesake and spitting image, also became a priestess. Their similar appearance fueled rumors that Laveau could live forever. Some still argue that she has eternal life, and that her frequently-visited tomb at St. Louis Cemetery is empty.

picture: QueenieAustralia formal dressesIn Coven, LaLaurie never made it out of New Orleans and Laveau continues to style hair and practice voodoo in the Lower Ninth Ward. The show also incorporates a group of young witches descended from Salem, studying Uptown at Miss Robicheaux’s Academy. Jessica Lange’s character, Fiona Goode, reigns as the coven’s Supreme witch, a position she should soon abdicate as she ages but stubbornly clings to, murdering younger witches to retain her power.

Exterior shots of Robicheaux’s Academy were filmed at Buckner Mansion on Jackson Avenue in the Garden District, built by a cotton magnate in 1856. Location scouts chose sites all over the city, including the exterior of LaLaurie’s mansion on Royal as well as several 19th century historic homes nearby for that building’s interior shots, including Gallier House (also on Royal) and the Hermann-Grima House (on St. Louis).

“With LaLaurie and Laveau, the history influenced the fashion,” says Costume Supervisor Elizabeth Macey. “We built the majority of their period costumes, because that clothing was created specifically for individuals and little of it exists today. Marie also wears a lot of modern looks.”

Macey, along with Lead Costume Designer Lou Eyrich and Assistant Costume Director Kevin Van Duyne, won a 2014 Emmy for work on the series. Macey’s dress on awards night came from a Royal Street boutique. “I got a lot of compliments. Most people were in black – I stood out,” she says.

“Elizabeth’s dress was a gorgeous couture hand-painted silk chiffon by my favorite designer Zandra Rhodes,” says Leah Blake. “It came from the estate of Mickey Easterling, a New Orleans socialite and bon vivant. Those are the kinds of pieces that capture the mysterious appeal of New Orleans.”

Blake’s vintage boutique, Century Girl, sits three blocks upriver from the LaLaurie mansion on Royal’s 800 block. She shares the space with Bambi DeVille Engeran, also known as the Bakelite lady. The two provided clothing and jewelry for AHS’s third and fourth seasons.

“I loved working with Bob (Sparkman, a buyer for the show) and Elizabeth. They would come into the shop, and it was like I was part of the show’s narrative in a small but significant way. Sometimes it felt like we were all connected on the same path – I would bring in a rare piece like a double fox fur stole or 1920’s lingerie the day before they came in and it would be exactly what they were looking for,” says Blake.

“The first time I met Bob he was looking for a monkey fur coat for Jessica Lange, which we never found,” says Bambi. “New Orleans style is dramatic and bohemian. As a result I had a lot of oddities which accented the aesthetic of AHS – like an albino baby alligator necklace, for example.”

“Ryan (Murphy – the show’s creator) is obsessed with furs,” says Macey. “And capes, and feathers. He has a distinct aesthetic and is very involved in the design process. He and Lou have worked together for 15 years, and she knows how to create the looks that he likes. She mixes new and old to create something unexpectedly modern.”

Other nearby shops including Retro Active Vintage, Prima Donna’s Closet and Lili Vintage Boutique also contributed pieces. “They used a beautiful red cape from my shop, along with several 1920s piano shawls,” says Laura Hourguettes, owner of Lili. “Some of the pieces would have to be used for multiple, gory, takes, so they were also making replicas of vintage pieces they found around the city.”

AHS designers created a wardrobe unique to each character accentuated with local touches. Fiona (Jessica Lange) wears couture. Designers like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent supply her chic, all black ensembles. Many of the witches fittingly wear black, with the exception of Misty Day (Lily Rabe), whose obsession with Stevie Nicks lends itself to white, fringe-heavy, festival wear and 1920s piano shawls. It’s a look commonly sported at the city’s late spring and summer festivals, like Jazz Fest.

“New Orleans is a wonderland for fashion,” says Blake. “Our city dresses up and wants to stand out. Locals take more risks and their outfits can be very theatrical.” Engeran agrees, and traces part of the city’s penchant for parties and costumery to Mardi Gras, celebrated for more than 300 years in the region.

“We like to celebrate during Carnival, but also year round. Women like to wear big hats and statement jewelry. We aren’t afraid of bold looks. When you drive past mansions in the Garden District, realize that in every stately manor the mistress of the house has a costume closet somewhere full of years’ worth of Carnival attire,” says Engeran.

“In New Orleans you see people walking down the street dressed as pirates and vampires. A woman might wear a Victorian mourning skirt, cashmere sweater, cowboy boots, and a top hat. She could be next to a woman in head to toe couture. People aren’t afraid to wear anything,” she says.

In addition to an appreciation for fashion fearlessness, New Orleanians respect their city’s lengthy history. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, and that’s all part of the mysterious allure. Vintage pieces have the same appeal – representing a piece of the past and the opportunity to tell a story.

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