Home    Bucket List Events Blog
The History and Tradition of Rio Carnival Costumes

There are few spectacles that are as awe-inspiring and mind-blowing as Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long festival in celebration of Lent. Not only do official participants of the parade dress up in extravagant and glitzy costumes, but so do many of the guests enjoying the celebration. But how did Carnival go from a religious celebration to a wild parade filled with colorful and skimpy costumes? Here is how the tradition of Rio Carnival costumes evolved:


Origins of Carnival

The Portuguese word “carneval” comes from Italian and translates to the phrase “to put away the meat.” This refers to the Catholic religion’s season of Lent where meat is not consumed to await the religious significance of Easter. In Italy, Carnevale was celebrated with a costume contest, and as this tradition grew, it made its way over to many other Catholic countries in Europe, including Portugal.

Carnival in Rome circa 1650. Source.


Colonial Brazilian – Rio de Janeiro Carnival History

In the earliest days of Carnival, the Portuguese colonists brought over the tradition of dressing up in costumes for the beginning of Lent.  In these early days, Portuguese socialites would dress up in masks and costumes and then parade through town while the commoners watched.  Costumes from this time until the 1930s were very elaborate and were often a way to demonstrate wealth.

These are modern Carnival goers in Venice, but their costumes are ultra traditional for Carnival.


Masquerades have always been popular for the sense of freedom and mystery that wearing a mask brings. This was no exception in colonial Brazil, where the range of costumes and masks was quite extensive. Popular costumes included donkeys, skulls, an old man, a doctor, the devil, a chimp, death, a prince, rajah, Maharajah, the Mandarin, or Father John.  Some costumes harked back to the origins of Carnival in that they were more traditionally Italian themed, such as the harlequin, Domino, or comedian. Many Rio Carnival masks in contemporary times hark back to these traditions.

Games played during Rio Carnival circa 1822. Source.



The 1930s: The Heat is On

In the 1930s, more and more people began participating in Carnival, leading to a shift in the sorts of costumes worn. The elaborate costumes worn by the official parade goers were simply too expensive for the common man. Furthermore, Brazil can be sweltering in February, and these intricate costumes just weren’t practical for Rio Carnival dancers.

Rio Carneval 1943. Source.

But now that the general public wanted to participate in the costuming fun, several businesses started making costumes in lighter colors, using less materials to make them more comfortable and affordable. By the time the official parade in 1932 made its way through town, nearby theaters, clubs, and hotels were hosting their own Carnival celebrations and costume contests for anyone to attend. It was  also in the 1930s when many men started attending the festivities in drag.


Men in Drag at Carneval in the 1930s. Source.


Risque Business

Over the next few decades, Rio Carnival costumes took a sexy and revealing turn. Around the time of the 1950s, the costumes worn by women in attendance at the festival would often just consist of colorful bikinis. Sure, these swimsuits weren’t quite as revealing as the ones we see today, but still pretty spicy for the time. Men around this time also began to go shirtless, opting instead to only wear linen pants.

It seems that year after year, the costumes at Rio Carnival consist of less and less clothing. Each decade brought its own flavor of fashion trends and evolved with the times. Both men and women shed coverage to opt for wild headdresses and tails instead. These days most of the Rio Carnival dancers wear more in the way of feathers and beads than actual coverage.

Rio Carnival dancers in 1998.


Samba Schools

The history of the costumes at Rio’s Carnival wouldn’t be complete without a little information about the Samba schools. These schools were started around 1970s, and are organized groups that together dance in the Carnival parade. Some of these schools are even as large 4,000 people. Dancers in each Samba school tend to dress up in similar outfits and learn specific styles and choreography in order to distinguish their group at the parade. The Samba Schools are the typical Rio Carnival dance performance that most people envision when they think of the festivities!


Samba School Parade in 2004. Source.



Many visitors get into Carnival during their stay and are encouraged to dress up to partake in the fun. Visitors who know they want to dance with a Samba school can order their costumes in advance to make sure that they will match so they can dance in one of the local parades.  It can be an exhilarating experience. Many guests to the area don’t think of this in advance, so they can be rather creative in finding ways to dress up for the event to get into the spirit.

Typical festival-goer attire is colorful and fun.


Go Wild, but Full Nudity is not Allowed

Although the Rio Carnival costumes are getting skimpier and skimpier as the years go by, full nudity is not allowed, and this goes against the rules of Carnival. In fact, a Samba school can get into trouble if one of their dancers goes against this rule, and can even be disqualified from participating because of it.  This is pretty serious considering all that goes into being part of Carnival in a Samba school.



Carnival in Rio is an epic Bucket List experience that requires getting into the festive spirit. There’s no better way to start getting excited than by preparing your costume! For advice on your Rio Carnival costumes and vacation, check out our travel packages and get in touch with one of our experienced guides.


Comments Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply