The costumes of the Carnevale di Venezia fire everyone’s imagination. They immediately transfer you back in time and make the city of Venice even more magical. I am always impressed by the sheer beauty and attention to detail of these luxurious costumes.
Ever since I attended the Carnevale for the first time in 1986, I have been intrigued to know more about the costumes and the people wearing them. I was therefore very excited to interview Faye Schmidt about her passion for Carnevale costumes. Together with her husband Barry Carbol, she already participated 8 times to the carnival in Venice. They design their own stunning costumes and travel all the way from Canada with 5 (five!) costumes per person. In this post, they share with you their experiences in designing a costume and attending the Venice carnival.
Can you remember your first visit to Carnevale di Venezia?
My first trip to Venice was in 1975 and Barry’s first visit was in 1983. Our first trip to Carnevale was 2002, followed by 2005 and every second (or odd numbered) year since. We started Carnevale in 2002 with 4 costumes each. We did not have the advantage of lots of online information and didn’t know exactly what to expect. So, we went hoping we had enough only to find most had a single costume. But, we loved having variety from day to day and sometimes (not often) we do two in a single day.
2019 will mark the 9th time we will participate in the Carnevale di Venezia. Each time, we have had 4 repeat and 1 new costume. Next up are blue monarch butterflies with an 18th century look. However, we may be back to 4 costumes each as they are getting bigger and we might not get 5 in the suitcases this time. We’ll see!
Your costumes are very diverse. Where do you find the inspiration for the design?
This sounds like an easy question but it is hard to answer. There are many things that come into play.
For some costumes, we have been influenced by the beautiful 18th century setting of Venice. We have done a lot of reading about Venice in the 18th century and about Carnevale. For other costumes, we have tried to think about Italian themes. Our late 18th century naval costumes for instance are our celebration of the period when Venice was a navel centre. And, after seeing Pinocchio everywhere in Venice for years, it was easy to zero in on that character.
We try to anticipate what will work well for the photographers. What colours, shapes, and especially what little details might stand out? There are some photographers who seem to focus on certain elements like our rings or our shoes and things like that.
Our designs are also based on what we can get into our suitcases. This can be very challenging as we are limited in the maximum size of our bags. The handle of the umbrella for my Steampunk costume for instance comes off. Otherwise it wouldn’t fit, even on the diagonal. We have had to be very creative with how things come apart!
Lastly, and probably most importantly, we think about whether the costume lends itself to a fun way of presenting it. We can’t imagine having fun if we were to just stand there in costume. We like to become the characters we are dressed as and engage with the people who are viewing our costumes. So, we often don’t wear masks at all giving preference to makeup instead. If we use a mask, it usually is a small eye mask.
“Being in an 18th century setting in 18th century outfits is magical – I can’t think of any other word for it.”
How much time does it take to create a new costume, from the idea conception to the final fitting?
It takes us 2 years to create each costume. As soon as we finish one Carnevale we start developing ideas for the next one we will attend. It takes many hours of research to arrive at the concept and many more to create the design and identify suppliers.
For some costumes, we have linked the purchase of fabrics and notions (buttons, etc.) with our travels so we have things that have been purchased in many different places. Once we have the main fabric(s) selected, I always have a sample of it in my purse so we can buy accessories as we come across them.
In our early days, we worked with a local seamstress but we now work with seamstresses in different places. As an example, the main part or body of our costumes for 2019 were sewn in the southern part of the USA and then shipped to us in Canada. I develop a storyboard to communicate all of the details we want the seamstress to create. I then spend lots of time online finding suppliers for all of the details such as hats and wigs. Etsy.com is my key ‘go to’ place. I’m not sure how I would do it without this great online resource of suppliers.
We love the design process as it is an opportunity to be very creative. There are no rules about what to create and it is extremely rare for us to get to a point with our costumes where we think we have gone too far or ‘blinged’ them up too much.
How do you transport your delicate and huge costumes to Venice?
It takes several days to pack using many pages of detailed packing lists. These are very necessary so we don’t leave something important behind. We have to pack a full costume together in a single suitcase just in case a piece of luggage is lost when we travel. So far, that thankfully hasn’t happened. If we didn’t do this and a suitcase didn’t arrive, we could end up with pieces of several costumes and not enough to complete any given costume.
Our bags are big, but usually not very heavy as wigs, hats, etc. take lots of space but are light. We check 6 of the largest suitcases that are allowed, and we each have 1 wheelie carry-on plus 1 tote bag. So, we have 10 pieces of luggage in total. It is crazy when we arrive in Venice and have to stack all of this onto 2 trolley carts and make our way to the water taxi area. With this much luggage, a water taxi is the only way to get into the city. We are thankful for the indoor walkway that was built at the Venice airport in recent years. It makes getting to the water taxi area much easier. Also, we only book accommodation that has a water taxi entrance.
Is it easy to walk around in these costumes? They look heavy and difficult to manoeuvre.
Some costumes are much easier to wear than others. When we design our costumes, we always have to figure out how to ensure we will be warm enough. February in Venice can be cold and we are often outside in costume for several hours. So, we never will look as slim as we are with all of the things we are wearing under our costumes! One of my gowns (the burgundy one) on its own weighs 11 pounds (5 kg). Then I have the weight of the wig, the undergarments, etc.
Other costumes are challenging not due to their weight but due to their design. For example, our Pinocchio shoes are very long and hard to walk in. To create the character, we walk like puppets, not people, which takes a lot of energy. The public really enjoys it and children in particular like to pose with us when we are in this costume. Pinocchio appeared first in 2013 and was there in 2015 and again in 2017, so he won’t be back again in 2019.
Becoming the character is fun but can also be challenging. Dressed in our costumes of French clowns based on the Pierrot character, Barry has the big smile and the healthy rose and I have the dead rose and am crying. This is a costume we have had at every Carnevale we have attended as we have fun presenting it. It’s been very hard at times, but so far I’ve managed to stay sad and avoid smiling.
A more delicate question: what do you do when you have to use the bathroom?
Your question is a good one and one we get asked a lot. All I can say is it is not easy. Some costumes are bigger than most toilet stalls, or we are put together in ways that don’t come apart easily. We always book our accommodation very close to San Marco so we can get back to home base when needed.
It is clear that you are both passionate about Carnevale. Are there no downsides?
There are times when it is crazy busy and very hard to move around, especially if we need to use a vaporetto to get to one of the photo shoot locations. It surprises us how some people are so nice about giving us space so we can move easily and others can be so disrespectful.
Most of our costumes are fragile and they all cost a great deal. Unfortunately, many people think it is okay to grab us when they pose with us. We have had our costumes broken this way. For instance, some people think it is fun to grab the top of our Pinocchio puppet mechanism for their photo. This isn’t a good idea as we have had the wood broken more than once. We also think cans of spray string should be banned as they can stain our costumes and we’ve been sprayed more than once. Similarly, we also don’t like it when people throw confetti as it gets into the costumes and can be hard to get out.
Whenever we are in costume, the biggest challenge is not moving through the city but rather the expectations of the public who want to pose with us. We spend many hours everyday posing for people’s photos, but at times we have to get to an event or we are just so tired we need to get out of our costumes and off our feet. Some people seem to think we are there just for their entertainment and that we have to stop for their photo. Here again, all we need is a little respect and understanding that we just can’t accommodate everyone. We are sorry, but not everyone can get a photo with us – it’s our vacation too.
You might wonder why we continue to do it given these problems. The answer is that we have a lot of fun becoming our characters and seeing how people react to them. While we’ve had more problems than we’d like, we have also had so many charming encounters with people and many express their gratitude for the effort we have put into our costumes. There are too many stories of great encounters with the public to write up here.
How do you spend your days during Carnevale?
Things have changed since our first Carnevale in 2002. Over time, we have started to spend more time with photographers who book us for a shoot. Some arrangements are made well in advance of our arrival. These sessions are fun for us as the photographers know quiet places with interesting backgrounds.
We could do all of our time with the photographers, but we want Carnevale to be fun for everyone. We therefore spend a good amount of time every day in public places for people to get photos of us. It is a tricky balance to achieve the right use of our time. Some people in costume tell us that they don’t do much, if any, time with the public in large part due to the problems I’ve mentioned before. It would be good if there could be some information shared with the public about how to make it work for everyone.
We have been in some parades in San Marco but since they went to an audience voting system we have decided not to take part. Earlier on, the organizers of the parade would decide who to invite to the final parade on the last Sunday and that worked much better. We don’t like the idea of putting a great deal of focus on the competition between costumes. We think that public voting does just that. We don’t mind that the final parade is judged by a panel but as long as they have public judging for the daily parades, we will probably continue to decline to participate.
“We think all costumes should be celebrated, not judged by the public.”
Do you attend the balls?
We went to a ball the first time we went to Carnevale in 2002 and haven’t gone again since. We thought that we didn’t get value for the cost of the event. They are very expensive, but all we got was basic banquet quality food with too many people for the space (those costumes need room!). The entertainment was nice until it all quickly deteriorated into a disco. We think this is just an odd thing to do in an 18th century costume. I wish the balls weren’t so expensive. Given our experience, we aren’t willing to try it again at today’s costs.
We do attend other events such as dinner and baroque dancing or afternoon hot chocolate and baroque dancing. Those are nice ways of being out in costume and while we enjoy them, I can’t say I could recommend them to others. For the cost of the tickets, you don’t get much and the spaces are just too small.
The events that really stood out for us all happened once and haven’t been repeated. For example, one year we went to an event at Ca’ Rezzonico. It was a wonderful baroque concert and a reception along with a chance to tour the rooms. Doing all of that in 18th century costumes was fabulous. There were times we were the only ones in a room so there we were in period dress in a period setting. Another wonderful event was a gondola ride and wine tasting, again in costume.
Do you have a last tip to share with people who want to visit Carnevale for the first time?
Our approach to Carnevale with multiple costumes isn’t what most people do. I hope this post doesn’t discourage anyone from coming as they think they have to do all of what we do. I always tell people that it is important to have a costume as that’s the only way to really get into the spirit of the event. However, the costume can be as simple as a mask and cape (easy to buy once they are in Venice) or perhaps there is a local rental company where a costume can be rented and taken to Venice for the duration of their stay. We’ve known people who have done both of these options and they had a great time.
I want to thank Faye for all her inspiration and the time she put into this post. I found it very interesting and I have learned a lot of things which I didn’t realize before. I have now even more respect for everyone dressed in costume. Faye also triggered me in going to Carnevale dressed in a real costume next time. If you plan to go in February, make sure to look out for the 18th century butterflies and say hi to Faye and Barry.
If you want to know more about the different Carnevale events that will take place from February 16 until March 5, 2019, you can read my post ‘The insider’s guide to Carnevale di Venezia’. If you are curious about the meaning of the historical costumes, I suggest you take a look at ‘Glamorous masks and costumes at Carnevale di Venezia‘.
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