Ceremonial Disrobement and Moral Choice:
Consumption Rituals at Mardi Gras
Louisiana State University
In the mid-1970s, a new phenomenon began to occur in New Orleans' French Quarter during Mardi Gras. That phenomenon may be described simply as an exchange of beads for nudity. Nudity, of course, has always been a common sight in the area, from the old brothels of Storyville, to the strip clubs of Bourbon Street, to the occasional concomitant of extreme intoxication. Beads are the primary currency of Mardi Gras, thrown from parade floats and balconies. The exchange of beads for nudity is a new kind of ritual, a ceremonial interaction involving negotiation and reciprocity among strangers. Its popularity derives from the modeling of the ritual on the free exchange of goods and services for a generalized medium that is characteristic of capitalism.
The linkage of deviance and market behavior is a subject of both public interest and striking theoretical importance. When I began to study ritual disrobement in 1983,1 the practice was circumscribed roughly by the temporary boundaries of Mardi Gras and the spatial boundaries of the French Quarter. Nearly 20 years later, it has diffused beyond both of these boundaries, and may be witnessed the entire year on Bourbon Street, in some Southern locations during Mardi Gras, and even at social gatherings by fraternities and sororities in other areas of the country. Part of the reason for the interest in nudity is that American society, compared with many others, remains relatively modest with respect to such public displays (Weinberg, 1965). But the reason for the diffusion of ritual disrobement is more fundamental: It models the core values of market societies.
First consider a definition. “Disrobement” is an action (a) performed by nonprofessionals; (b) that is relatively brief, leaving most of the body clothed; and (c) directed to strangers. It is also, strictly speaking, illegal. One can say without exaggeration that its relational and behavioral topography are identical to exhibi-____________________