Carnival: Freedom, Independence and the Panty Mas

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In Trinidad and Tobago, August is the month of Emancipation, Independence and the band launch.

Emancipation and Independence presented us with the opportunity to celebrate and own the Carnival experience, and to indulge in various aspects of freeness. Freedom from the constrictions of work, race, religion, and nowadays… cloth.

Trinis have argued for and against the skimpier and skimpier costume options marketed by the big names in large-band promotions. In their defence, promoters claim they are simply giving the people what they want – the ability to ‘palance’ in a costume that keeps you cool in the heat of the day, and frees your limbs to jump, wave and misbehave. Meanwhile, others claim that bikini mas is destroying the artform and encouraging sexual debauchery already fuelled by free-flowing alcohol and vigorously wining waists.

Who will win this debate?

Is anyone deprived by the half (or in some cases almost wholly) naked masquerader on the streets during Carnival? Does the nakedness prevent other bands from producing and successfully marketing more covered costume options? Is one group’s freedom encroaching on that of another? Should we feel free to display our bodies as we please?

In the US, Montana Fishburne shot to overwhelming stardom recently when she announced to the world that she wants to be a porn star. Not a forensic accountant or marine biologist or an A-list actor like her famous dad, Laurence Fishburne, but a porn star. Montana made it clear that this career choice was one which she had been contemplating since she was 16 years old, and she was quite at peace with her decision. And why not? Although many may think being a porn star is the last stop on the drugs and alcohol addiction train rather than an admirable vocation, it is a job and according to the Bill of Rights, Montana is free to choose whichever career she wishes. If she is good at it and it brings her satisfaction, then why not?

In another turn of events, soon after Montana’s revelation, our Miss Universe hopeful Ms. La Toya Woods posed topless for an official, Miss Universe photo shoot. Although many of the contestants hid their top halves by posing with their backs to the camera, La Toya had no shame in exposing her breasts to the camera flash. In her defence, she argued that her nipples had been covered with pasties and her breasts had been adorned with body paint, a custom made popular by many Trinidadian masqueraders at Carnival time. As a free woman, La Toya was revealing to the world, in what she believed to be a tasteful manner, the beauty of the human body. And alternative art found yet another champion.


“For people of the ‘us’ generation, freedom has taken on its own meaning.”


For people of the ‘us’ generation, freedom has taken on its own meaning. It is not only about the ability to vote or to earn a decent wage, but includes the ability to challenge long existing social mores that have straddled our society for centuries. This journey has inevitably led us to push the barriers where sex and sexuality are concerned. And as art imitates life, our costumes at Carnival time have certainly followed suit.

With bands launching left and right during the August vacation, we have been inundated with bikinis, beads and feathers from the popular large-sized mas bands like Tribe, Spice, Harts and Island People, as well as from the new kids on the block like YUMA and Oasis. Masqueraders have the option of individual, frontline, backline, and even backline, with or without headpiece and other accoutrements. All these bands offer the ultimate Carnival package with booming music trucks, food, drinks, and the premium, skin-exposing experience.

Even though each band boasts a different theme and specifically designed costumes, each and every costume composes similar elements – a bra, underwear and a waistband. With the advent of the monokini, some bands have substituted this for the bikini, but usually for the frontline option. And please don’t let the monokini fool you; it is not a full-piece bathing suit, but rather a bikini with either one or two thin strips of cloth attaching bikini top to bottom. Besides, very little creative space exists within the small triangles covering breasts and privates, and inevitably, save for colour combinations, many costumes end up looking extraordinarily similar.

Yet still, these bands are the first to sell out. Take for example YUMA, the new addition to the Carnival line-up. Save for the skirt on Sagittarius and the criss-crossed top on Libra, their Zodeack offering followed the trusted formula, and in its first week several sections have already sold out. Tribe with its plethora of wire bras and jewelled string belts sold out within an hour.

The masqueraders have exercised their right to choose.

Interestingly, although traditional mas bands complain about bikini mas day in and day out, they continue to thrive in the competition. Brian Macfarlane has enjoyed remarkable success offering highly elaborate costumes overflowing with cloth. Traditional mas is still holding down the fort, as I have never watched the parade of bands without seeing Sailor, American Indian, Midnight Robber and Bat on the road in all their splendour. Starlift still offers their t-shirt band, and a new band called Skullduggery has injected some creativity and cloth into the Carnival scene. So the freedom of choice is facilitated.

Is the behaviour of Montana, La Toya and the Carnival Masquerader demonstrative of ultimate freedom? For centuries, persons have made incredible sacrifices so that we could have the freedom to be a porn star, go topless, or prance down the road in a bedazzled wire bra and shimmery panty. New age, western morality, which has embraced homosexuality, prostitution and polygamy, claims that once no one gets hurt, and once no one else’s basic freedoms are infringed, then go for it.

So who is truly affected by the bra and panty mas? Masqueraders clamour for it, spectators can choose not to watch it, and competitors flourish in spite of it. Doesn’t that fit squarely within the ambit of true freedom and independence?


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Gabrielle Gellineau is an Attorney-at-Law and Trade Consultant who loves to communicate via words, written and spoken. She can be contacted at You can also check out her blogs and

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