Jump Up, Turn Up, Dress Up: The Men Playing Mas at Carnival
Photos courtesy of the author

Jump Up, Turn Up, Dress Up: The Men Playing Mas at Carnival

Wearing colorful costumes at Caribbean carnivals isn’t just for women — but the gender politics are more complicated than ever

With the sweet sound of soca as their backdrop, Caribbean carnivals roll through the region’s various islands each year, each one a multiday blur of revelry, libations… and feathers. So many feathers. Feathers in every shape, color, and size imaginable — feathers that form the very foundation of “playing mas,” a centuries-old tradition of costumed celebration. And while it’s most often women wearing vibrant and flamboyant regalia, if you look closer you’ll see decked-out men throughout the crowd, pelting waist and wining to their heart’s content.

“For me and many others, there was a feeling of discovering a whole new world,” says Steven Lofters of his maiden reveling experience. He is one of the directors of the Jamaica-based band Xaymaca International, which, like all carnival bands, is responsible for creating sections with corresponding costumes for masqueraders. After his first time playing mas in 2006, Lofters founded LEHWEGO, a popular blog that shares insight on carnival from a man’s perspective. He describes his first time playing mas as “a parallel universe of sorts, where I was surrounded by happy people. Where all I heard was this amazing happy music. Where I felt free and unbridled. It was literally euphoria.”

Men have long participated in playing mas at Trinidad’s Carnival, Dominica’s Mas Dominik, Toronto’s Caribana, and other revels. While some simply enjoy the euphoria Lofters mentions, for others playing mas holds significant cultural meaning. London-based masquerader Bòsko plays as an extension of his Dominican identity. “Within the Eastern Caribbean, [carnival] is a huge part of our ancestral culture,” he says. “It’s quite important for me to keep [carnival] alive and keep pushing all of that forward.”

Yet in the last decade, there’s been a visible decline in men playing mas, especially on social media timelines during carnival season. Only by searching hashtags like #RealMenPlayMas and #MenInMas are you likely to see the guys going against the grain and throwing waist on the road in costumes — amid a culture that is counterintuitively trending in the opposite direction.

While carnivals and festivals celebrate beloved aspects of Caribbean history and culture, as mass performances they also leave room for stigma for men who participate. “There are definitely taboos,” says Darrell Baksh, who is pursuing a PhD in cultural studies at Trinidad’s University of the West Indies and has played mas for 15 years.

Baksh points to two reasons for the development of the modern carnival status quo. The first is musical: Calypso and its offshoot soca, genres native to Trinidad and Tobago, have traditionally been dominated by male artists (although women have been highly influential in both). The other is visual: When Janelle Commissiong became the first Black Miss Universe in 1977 while representing Trinidad and Tobago, it spurred an increase in Black women from the region entering beauty pageants.

With men providing the soundtrack of carnival and women becoming global representations of beauty, a new conception began to form of how people play mas. “The taboo… is tied to that gender dichotomy,” says Baksh, alluding to the role of ostentatious attire in carnival. “Playing mas [became] a female thing.”

Things become more contentious when factoring in homophobia and other regressive gender attitudes. With its landmark 2018 overturn of homophobic and heteronormative colonial-era laws, Trinidad has led a rise in awareness of LGBTQ+ rights, and carnival has provided a crucial space for LGBTQ+ folks to be more visible on the road. Still, how men play mas is often judged, regardless of sexuality. “You have to perform and behave in particular ways,” explains Bòsko. “You have to wine with women. You can’t wine with men — that’s unacceptable.” Though Bòsko had played mas many times throughout his childhood, he says his initial experience as an adult was awkward. “My cousin’s fiancé was forcing me to wine with people,” he recalls. “Literally pushing me into people, not so much from a voyeuristic perspective, but very much ‘this is what you have to do.’”

“If you backtrack six, seven, eight years, you would have had a larger quantity of men playing in full costume. Now, I feel like it’s a thing where a question of your sexuality [is posed] if you have a full costume on.”

Costumes, too, play a role in how men play mas. Men generally have three options for carnival attire. They can wear trunks (a pair of shorts provided by a band) with accessories like an arm band, leg piece, or chest piece; they can sport a band-provided tee or tank with trunks; or they can purchase a full costume from a band, which pairs trunks and accessories with a headpiece and/or feathered backpack. Those choices have taken on new subtext over the years. “I hardly see men who identify as straight in backpacks,” says Baksh. “It has become very much associated with gay men and queer men. Too many feathers, beads, and sequins is seen as this kind of feminizing thing.”

Alejandro Gomez, who has designed costumes for carnivals in Trinidad, Jamaica, Bermuda, St. Kitts, and Miami, sees this as a recent phenomenon that needs to be unlearned. “If you backtrack six, seven, eight years, you would have had a larger quantity of men playing in full costume,” he says. “Now, I feel like it’s a thing where a question of your sexuality [is posed] if you have a full costume on.”

Given this (and because bands provide costumes based on existing demand), T-shirts and trunks tend to be the default option for men playing mas. But with carnival still prized as a venue for self-expression, some men have taken matters into their own hands. Chevion Morgan, a 22-year-old reveler from Kingston, designed and made a backpack for himself to jump in for the 2018 Jamaica Carnival. “Bands should be looking towards making male costumes unique and expressive,” says Morgan. “We should have the choice to choose whether we want to wear a costume’s headpiece, backpack, T-shirt, or neck piece. We decide how we want to express ourselves on the road.”

A similarly proactive approach led to Gomez creating his own business: His foray into designing began in 2015, after a band turned down his request for custom garb. “There definitely is a market for [full costume options for men],” he says. “It’s just that bands aren’t really supplying it. Over the last five years, male costume [options] have changed; they’ve become smaller with less variety.”

For all of the color that is associated with carnival, a black-white duality persists as well: Carnival can be both a site of liberation and one of restriction. “We need to think historically about carnival as a space that overturned order,” says Baksh. “And when we think about order, we’re also thinking about how colonialism informed and enforced it. So, as much as carnival has tried to disrupt particular gender ideologies, it has still ended up reinforcing them.”

But for those who buck such social conventions, the full glory of playing mas — the adornments, the costumes, and the wining — provides a much-needed way to unwind. “I work in a formal shirt-and-tie environment and have a family and many responsibilities,” says Lofters. “Carnival provides a safe space where my alter ego can come out to play.”

“We’re all entitled to self-expression,” Gomez says. “The same way you look at women in full frontline costume — why can’t a guy have that same experience?”