A Guide to Dressing for Carnival Like a Local in Rio

The Brazilian carnival is the largest of its kind in the world, a vast national festival that combines erotic elements of music, dancing and the famous Rio carnival costumes. The costumes add the spice and the color to the celebrations, seducing the spectators at the parades with their sensual and invigorating designs. Yet the costumes are more than just for show; they play an important role in the carnival parades.


The parades in Rio de Janeiro take place at the Sambodromo which turns into an elaborate spectacle during the carnival, with the climax of the event taking place on Shrove Tuesday. It is the highly anticipated moment where 14 of the best samba schools in the city present their efforts of months of painstaking practice and preparation manifested into what they hope to be the best samba performance that Rio has ever witnessed. The shared goal is to be crowned the best samba school of the carnival.

Samba dancer costume |© Carnaval.com Studios/Flickr
Samba dancer costume | © Carnaval.com Studios/Flickr

It’s in this performance that the costumes play their key role. The costumes carry the school’s chosen theme, a critical part of their show. Once the theme has been decided by the school, it is then the school’s responsibility to design and produce the costumes. The majority of them are hand-crafted with every detail, sequin and feather carefully considered and lovingly sewn on. The costumes are colorful with dazzling headdresses and outlandish accessories. Nudity is strictly forbidden although the samba dancers push the boundaries by wearing barely-there jeweled bikinis yet still appear wonderfully over-the-top with enormous head pieces. The overall effect is outstanding.

The elaborate parades |© Nicolas de Camaret/Flickr

The elaborate parades | © Nicolas de Camaret/Flickr

The performance during the parade is divided into what is known as wings, with each school’s wings representing a certain role and using a particular outfit. The Ground Wing is the dancers and musicians that participate on the ground surrounding the float. Tourists can buy a costume and participate in this part of the parade, taking them from the sidelines and into the pulsating samba beats and euphoric dancing crowd. The Float Wing is the performance on the floats themselves. It’s taken more seriously by the samba schools as this act is under the keen eyes of the judges and requires dedicated rehearsals and learning the songs off by heart. Costumes for this part of the parade cost an eye-watering US$900 to US$10,000.

Street Parties

Street parties are all about dressing up and with no mandatory costume guidelines, the choice of fancy dress is up to the party-goer. Popular choices are policeman, sailor, Indian, cowgirl and pirate outfits. Leave the layers at home; it’s hot in Rio’s summer and it’s made more intense in a large crowd, plus carnival is all about being sexy and having fun. Themes are optional yet the majority of people at least wear bright colors, glitter, face paint or vibrant accessories.

Street party costumes |© Núcleo Céu na Terra/WikiCommons

Street party costumes | © Núcleo Céu na Terra/WikiCommons

Article by  Sarah Brown


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