Visit with this creator of distinctive Carnival headdresses in her Bywater home and studio, where both colors and ideas are given free reign.
- story by Harry Philpott
- photos by Ellis Anderson and Harry Philpott
Kate McNee lives her life in Technicolor. Though dusk looms the day of my visit, her Bywater home, painted yellow with pink trim and green doors, lights up the neighborhood. Inside, I’m bombarded with color again. Mannequin heads sprout from every flat surface: the kitchen counter, the dining room table, the coffee table, dressers. The headdresses they wear cover the whole of the color spectrum. Think giant Mickey Mouse caps infused with a touch of London psychedelia, with a big helping of Second Line spirit.
The cacophony of vivid hues grab for attention. One headdress is blanketed with royal blue and violet flowers. Another blazes with candy apple, amber, and lemon-colored flowers. Its tassels are a bright orange, speckled with sequins and beads. It looks like it’d be hot to the touch.
A flying saucer-inspired cape, stitched with neon-green rhinestones and sequins, hangs in a corner. The artist explains that it’s part of her costume for the upcoming Chewbacchus parade. She’ll be marching with her granddaughter, Poppy. Above the cape, Mad Hatter-esque top hats hang from the extra hooks.
Although she works in vivid color, Kate herself is dressed in muted tones — a pair of burgundy coveralls and a dark turtleneck. Her eyes look out from behind large, black glasses. I ask what inspires her to make her headdresses.
“It’s more the love of color than anything,” she explains.
That love was cultivated by a youth spent between the counterculture worlds of London and California. Kate was born in London and spent her formative years divided between the city and Los Angeles. Her British father, the late Jim Clark, was an Academy Award-winning film editor with more than 40 movie credits. When Clark was working on the classic film “Day of the Locusts” in 1975, he moved the family full time to LA.
As an adult, Kate returned to London to work as a Montessori school teacher before settling in San Francisco. There, she met and married musician Hart McNee. Hart’s main instruments were baritone saxophone and bass flute, but “he could play all of the saxes well,” says Kate. Hart’s affinity for music drew the couple south.
“Hart and I started coming to Jazz Fest in 1985,” says McNee. The first time Hart and Kate came to New Orleans it was just to visit the city and attend the festival. Their second time at Jazz Fest, Hart took to the stage alongside Grammy Award-winning musician Boz Scaggs.
The couple was hooked. “We fell in love with New Orleans,” says McNee. Knowing home when they found it, the couple moved to the city permanently in 1990. Over the next two decades, Hart played Jazz Fest numerous times with other bands.
In her 30-plus years in New Orleans, the artist has worn many different headdresses. What started out as a volunteer position with Jazz Fest has blossomed into an annual role as the festival’s art department administrator. An accomplished artist and craftsman, McNee has fashioned jewelry, clocks, and now her Mardi Gras headdresses and costume accessories.
Kate’s current pursuit started with a tiny top hat.
“My daughter needed a tiny little top hat for a Mardi Gras costume,” she tells me sitting around her dining room table. “I made her one and people went crazy for it. And then I just went bigger!”
Kate has been making headdresses, fanny packs, and costume keynotes for about six years. Most locals have seen some of her work out in the wild, dancing in the streets of New Orleans atop revelers’ heads during the weeks of Carnival season. Or Easter. Or Halloween. The fanciful creations have acquired a celebrity status of their own. Last Mardi Gras, “Sex in the City” star Kim Catrell made one the centerpiece of her costume.
In recent years, Kate McNee look-alike headdresses have begun to surface. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, for this artist, it simply raises the bar.
“It’s really kicked me in the pants lately seeing headdresses similar to mine,” she says. “But that just pushes me to go even bigger.” It’s clear that when Kate uses the word “bigger,” she’s talking about more than just size.
“Not being afraid is a good way to go at things,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to just put an umbrella on one of them. I mean, why not?”
At first glance, the large crowns of color, tassels, sequins, flowers, and feathers appear burdensome. As we sit around her dining room table surrounded by mannequins wearing headdresses, Kate plucks one off the nearest head and hands it to me. I expect the weight of the headdress to bring my arm down towards the floor, but as I hold it, my grip stays level. It’s no heavier than your run-of-the-mill ball cap.
The designer reveals how she’s able to cut down the weight of her headdresses: She flips over the headdress to show me that its base is a partially deconstructed baseball cap. She points towards another headdress across the room rising upwards from the crown of a mannequin’s head. “That one’s built on top of an upside-down visor.”
Baseball caps and visors are commonly used as bases by costume makers because lightness and wearability are a crucial aspect of any good Carnival crown. But it’s Kate’s fearless color alchemy and the uncommon materials she uses that make her pieces distinctive pieces of art. Part of her sorcery comes from outsourcing.
“I took my daughter on a trip to New York to the Garment District where I got most of these,” she says, pointing to a star-shaped, sapphire-colored rhinestone applique on the front of one headdress. “You can’t find things like this here in New Orleans.”
While Kate’s work is inescapable anywhere you look — at least in the weeks before Mardi Gras — most of the raw materials she uses are confined to her studio next to her kitchen.
As I step into her creative space, I’m transported to the interior of a kaleidoscope. In front of a floor-to-ceiling window a spectacular garden of faux flowers crowds in the light. Shelves line the side walls of the small room, each packed with boxes of red, green, blue, and orange boas, hats, patches, and sequins. Some appear to be attempting a getaway, spilling out of their assigned spaces in cascades of brilliant hues. But, there is no escaping color here in Kate McNee’s Bywater home.
Kate and Hart bought this historic house soon after moving to New Orleans and raised their daughter Lily there. After the couple divorced, they became “incredibly close friends” and remained neighbors. In the decades that she’s lived in the Bywater, Kate’s seen the neighborhood lose some of the color and diversity that once defined it. The exteriors of the historic houses may look the same, but the people living inside of them have changed. She notes how many residents never returned after Hurricane Katrina or have been forced out by rising real estate prices. The aftermath of Katrina was a particularly difficult time for Kate personally and creatively.
“After this zip code was cleared [by authorities who then allowed residents to return] and I first came back, the whole city just seemed to be gray,” she says. “It took me a while to get back into creating after that. It just seemed a bit frivolous.”
One of Kate’s personal turning points came in 2007, when she and Hart founded the St. Cecilia parade. In the tradition of the 50-year-oldSociety of Saint Anne’s parade, costumed members march through the neighborhoods on Mardi Gras day, starting early in the morning.
“St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians,” Kate explains, “so of course, we have a wonderful band. There’s about 150 of us now, but anybody can join in on the parade.”
In a mixture of the celebratory and the sorrowful that’s unique to New Orleans, both St. Anne and the St. Cecelia parade members who have lost loved ones carry those ashes along with them on Mardi Gras day.
“When we reach the river, the band plays the dirge and brings us way, way, way, way down,” Kate moves her hands to demonstrate. “People go and scatter their ashes and then rejoin the group. Then the band brings us way, way, way back up again. It’s truly beautiful.”
After losing Hart to cancer in 2009, Kate, her daughter Lily, and granddaughter Poppy paraded in St. Cecelia with his ashes. They carried them through the Bywater, the Marigny, and the Quarter, all the way to the river. As the band went way, way, way down, the family spread Hart’s ashes into the Mississippi.
Now Kate’s life seems to be on the way, way up. Recently, she combined forces and funds with fellow artists Karen Gadbois (co-founder and director of The Lens) and Peter Horius to purchase a schoolhouse in Crosby, Mississippi, about two hours north of the city. The trio have turned this 1930s schoolhouse into a retreat for visiting artists. Each has their own large school room, converted into combo bedrooms and work studios.
“It’s one of my favorite places,” says Kate. “I usually get to spend about one weekend a month there, but I’d love to be able to go more.”
There’s a new fire in her work as well. “Each year, I find that a different color rises above all the others,” she says. “This year, it’s red.”
Looking again, I notice the bursts of scarlet running throughout her work, Ferrari meeting Mardi Gras. Bright roses gush from the crowns, and scarlet strings dangle from the sides. In others, a red flower appears here or a patch of red rhinestones there.
Most of these headdresses will find owners at an open house sale scheduled the week following my visit. Then there are stores, FREDA (600 Carondelet Street, next to the Ace Hotel) and Alquimie in the French Quarter (938 Royal Street), who carry her work year-round.
What do her old friends back in London think about her rare profession? Kate laughs and says that it’s difficult for people there to understand that in New Orleans costumes are an essential part of any wardrobe.
“Oh, they think I’m completely mad, just crazy!” she says. “But they also think that I moved to the perfect place for me.”
Harry Philpott hails from the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where he grew up around books and barbecue. After college at the University of North Carolina, he tramped around the country for a few years, settling in Oregon for a little while before heading back to North Carolina. He now resides in New Orleans, LA where he is pursuing his MFA in Creative Non-Fiction at the University of New Orleans. He currently serves as an intern for the French Quarter Journal.