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PARISH CHIC: The griot of garb

Alonzo V. Wilson is the griot of garb. He's the costume designer for HBO's Treme, helping to transform words on a page to life on the screen. Until March 31, his work is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in an exhibition titled "Well Suited: The Costumes of Alonzo Wilson for HBO's Treme."

Treme explores why New Orleans matters through its culture and its people while also showing how the city gets in its own way with crime and corruption. The series debuted in 2010 with a season-long story arc of residents and the government trying to return, recover, and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Although fictional, Treme is deeply rooted in the truth. Each season weaves news events into the plot while also showcasing the unique food, music, and traditions of New Orleans. The show's fourth and final season finished shooting in February.

According to Wilson, New Orleans is a city with flair, more comparable to Brazil than to Paris or New York. The characters' attire on Treme reflects everyday New Orleans people with styles ranging from sartorial splendor, to work uniforms, to casual clothing, to not much at all.

In New Orleans, "it doesn't matter what day of the week it is," said Wilson. "Someone is always dressed and is somewhere performing in costume." 

Here, we go behind the scenes as Wilson sets up the show and attends the opening reception.

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Alonzo V. Wilson stands in front of a Flag Boy suit that appeared in the second season of Treme. Wilson used a large apron patch from Eddie Vanison (of the Hard Head Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe) as the theme for the rest of the suit.

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Wilson makes adjustments to blue-tarp Mardi Gras costumes from the first season of Treme.

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Wilson and his team recreated the costumes using reference photos.

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This suit, called "Mount Much More," was inspired by one created by Eddie Vanison, who portrays Memphis Ronnie on Treme. Wilson's team used one of Vanison's aprons—the bottom portion of the suit that includes intricate beadwork and tells a story—as the theme to create patches for this suit.

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A detail of “Mount Much More,” which is Mount Rushmore reimagined with a Native Chief, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and President Barack Obama replacing images of the U.S. presidents carved into the sacred mountain of the Lakota Sioux.

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A blue-tarp Mardi Gras costume for a character to wear on the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina, in 2006. Treme replicated the plethora of hurricane-themed costumes that New Orleanians wore on that day.

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A shoulder patch from the second season worn by Big Chief Albert Lambreaux. New Orleans has many Indian tribes that are distinguished by two sewing styles and areas: uptown and downtown. Uptown suits are more three-dimensional and African-inspired. Downtown suits are pictorial with Native American influences. “We needed to find a way for Lambreaux to represent the Indian culture as a whole,” Wilson said.

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For Wilson, the colors went beyond looking pretty—they told a story, too.  For season two, he wanted to address the state of the city. Crime was escalating. Politicians were dodging bullets of wrongdoing. Citizens were hoping for some semblance of a normal life. And mud-colored water lines were still prevalent in the city. The future was bleak.

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This Mardi Gras Indian suit was created for Big Chief Albert Lambreaux. Wilson used earthy colors, neutral tones of ivory and beige accompanied with rich tones of brown and rust, to evoke a calm, peaceful, or blank canvas.

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 A recreation of Wilson's drafting table with costume sketches.

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Design sketches for season four.

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Wilson chats with an attendee during the opening reception for the exhibition.

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Bradley Sumrall, Ogden Museum Chief Curator. Sumrall wore a Calvin Klein suit, a Bailey of Hollywood Hat from Meyer the Hatter, and a vintage tie.

For more information on the exhibit, visit the Ogden's website.

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