Leeds West Indian Carnival

Carnival costumes

Carnival costume is an important part of the Leeds West Indian Carnival, and is a way of expressing Caribbean culture and heritage through art and design. 

Costume artistry is taken very seriously and it often takes months for costumes to be created. There are a large number of big extravagant costumes, using wide skirts on wheeled supports, tall headdress arches with insets, torsos with wings, and enormous heads balanced by bouncing tails. Several well-known designers, such as Hughbon Condor, Arthur France, and Raymond Wilkes, make an annual commitment to design for different troupes, or individual appearances.

The biggest and most extraordinary costumes are those worn by women for the Carnival Queen Show, which takes place on the Friday of the last weekend of August. Usually one designer will make the King or Queen costume, and work with the troupe to come up with their group look. Then there will be a team of workers creating the many troupe outfits, working to an agreed pattern, after buying fabric and fittings in bulk. Getting the troupe costume ready takes a lot of volunteers with mums, sisters, brothers, dads and friends all pitching in. There’s lots of finishing off to do at home, in a rush to be ready for the big day.

At the Carnival Queen show, the women take it in turns to take to the stage and display the costumes, which are judged by a panel, and a winner is chosen. 

These costumes often represent motifs of Caribbean island life, such as tropical birds of paradise, coral reefs, sea life and beautiful butterflies or other symbols of this culture. 

There is also a smaller Carnival Prince and Princess Show, in which younger children compete in beautiful costumes to be crowned Prince or Princess of the Carnival. 

Curriculum links:


Design and Technology – using research to create design criteria, communicate ideas through discussion, annotated sketches and prototypes
Art and Design – Awareness of different kinds of art, craft and design, use of control over materials and designs 

Aim of resource:

The aim of the resources on this page is to give children an understanding of what Carnival costumes look like, how they are made, and why they are important to the Leeds West Indian Carnival. 

Learning objectives

  • Knowledge of costume at Leeds West Indian Carnival, and of Hughbon Condor, an important figure in Leeds West Indian Carnival who has made costumes for Carnival for many years
  • Understanding of why costume is important to Carnival, how these costumes are made and by whom.
  • Skills – designing making costumes from found or improvised materials, working in teams, comparing and contrasting, research. 

Discussion ideas:

  • What sort of thing do you think of when someone says ‘Carnival Costume’ – are these costumes big or small, brightly coloured or dark? What do they look like? 
  • What sort of themes might a carnival have? 
  • How do you think a big Queen Show costume might be made? What would it be made from, and how long would it take to make? 
  • How can costumes be used to celebrate Caribbean culture? 

Activity ideas (for sound clips see 'Audio' links below):

  • Carnival costumes are often based around a theme, and this theme can be as broad or as narrow as the community chooses. Listen to Arthur France talk about carnival themes (click here to listen at Sonic City website)  and discuss the fact that carnival costumes at the Leeds West Indian Carnival are still about the history of carnival, and are used to celebrate Caribbean culture and history more widely. Arthur talks about African heritage, and the fact that many costumes represent Africa and the Caribbean in different ways, so costume is a way of expressing that heritage and celebrating it in a beautiful way. Think about your culture – don’t forget you may be part of more than one! – and draw a series of objects that could be used as inspiration for a costume.

  • Listen to Hughbon Condor talking about his first winning costume (listen from 00:58 – 02:38). Hughbon has designed many of the costumes for the Leeds West Indian Carnival, and won awards for his costumes for many years. In this recording, Hughbon discusses his very first winning costume for Carnival, entitled ‘Morning Glory’. Think about what the title of this costumes means – the glory of the morning – and about what Hughbon says about how a winning costume focuses on the upper body and the face, and draw your own interpretation of this costume. Compare these with others in your class, and discuss the differences and similarities in your designs.

  • Listen to Hughbon (from 02:45 – 05:12) talk about the process of making a costume and the things you need to consider. Write down the ideas that you think are most important to making a costume (person as central, materials, structure, how it will be worn).

  • Look at all the photos of various costumes worn at the Leeds West Indian Carnival, and discuss the different themes and topics they depict. The images on this page above include:

    - Lisa Condor, dressed in a costume depicting a sea anemone, whose costume was designed by her brother, Hughbon Condor, and won the award for Queen costume in 1987

    - 1989 Carnival Queen Sheila Howarth and her costume representing a Rainbow of Peace
  • Discuss how some of these costumes may have been made, the theme behind them and what you like best about them. As a class, choose a theme for your own carnival – it could be the sea, nature, mountains, animals, colours, rainbows, forests, jungles, peace, happiness, or perhaps a place or landmark that is important to your local history – and work in groups to design a costume for Carnival. The first design should be created on paper, but as Hughbon discussed in the clips above, it’s a great idea to make a prototype!

  • Using the materials available to you, create a mini 3-D prototype of your costume.  You could use recycled material and natural objects to do this – items from the home or from outside (especially feathers and leaves!) to create these prototypes.

  • Listen to Hughbon talk about rivalry and secrecy at carnival, especially in costume designing (00.00 – 00.53). Your costume designs could be part of a competition and once the prototypes are made, each group can present their idea to the rest of the class.

  • Borrow the amazing Carnival dragon’s head (pictured above), part of the Artemis collection, made by Sheila Howarth for the Carnival parade (it is available to borrow from artemis@leeds.gov.uk). Look at how it has been made and recreate something similar in the classroom.

Document icon Learning article provided by: Leeds Museum Discovery Centre |  ArtForms Artemis | 
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