Flamboyant Face-Lifts for Wealthy Tourists Give Mask Appeal to a New Orleans Art Form

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Used to be when someone wanted a mask, all he had to do was turn his bandanna around and hang it over his nose. But these days mystery men and women have been going for a more exotic look in designer masks, and that trend was never more evident than during the festivities of Mardi Gras this month in New Orleans.

Helping tourists put on a happy or sad face are Joseph McLaughlin, Mike Stark and several other Balmains of the bal masque who sell their garish creations all year long in the French Quarter. At Eve Dupont's Fleur De Lys shop, artists display their masks, including one 1,000-feather number that sells for $750. Others sell their own designs on the street or in tiny workshop boutiques. "New Orleans is the mask Mecca of the world," claims McLaughlin, 38, who makes his out of pheasant, peacock and rooster feathers up to four feet long, then garnishes them just a bit. "We use Austrian crystals, bugle beads, horns, porcupine quills, leather, metal and lots of zippers," he says. McLaughlin's masks now grace faces far beyond Bourbon Street—at Texas charity balls, for example, and in Manhattan nightclubs. Dallas star Larry Hagman bought a McLaughlin mask that he hangs on the wall when he isn't wearing it. Remington Steele's Pierce Brosnan owns one, and Vanity sometimes belts out rock songs from behind a McLaughlin original. "I work out my fantasies in the masks," says McLaughlin, who sells his creations for $80 to $2,500 in five art galleries and 280 stores around the country.

Stark, 46, a caftan-clad Baptist minister, made his start in Eureka Springs, Ark. during Halloween, 1977. "I bought a bunch of feather dusters and made them into masks," says Stark, who now sells vibrant headdresses at his False Fronts boutique. He is also the force behind the recently formed New Orleans Mask Makers Guild. "We feel the world would be a better place to live if everyone were masked," says Stark. "You put one on and do something that you might not ordinarily do—something that your mama might not want you to do."

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