Carnival in Venice A Passion for Finery

It's Carnival time in Venice again. Germany's Tanja Schulz-Hess talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the self-designed garments that have seen her take the top costume prize for two years in a row at Italy's world-famous, pre-Lent festival.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've created countless costumes for Carnival in Venice. Are you driven by a passion for finery?

Schulz-Hess: I cannot deny the fact that I enjoy hamming it up. Most of all, though, I enjoy making the costumes. I like seeing how an idea is transformed into a finished project and how it takes on its own personality. I also enjoy walking through Venice in costume and seeing how people stare reverentially and say "Complimenti" and even thank me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your costumes are quite elaborate. Did you study costume design?

Schulz-Hess: No, not at all. Even today, I can't create patterns or sew straight lines. Whenever I so much as touch a sewing machine, something bad happens. Last year I took a shoemaking course in London and my sewing machine burned up -- and I'd even warned the teacher that something would happen! I work with a hot glue gun. I even used it to make my wedding dress.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've already won first place at the Venice Carnival costume contesst twice. What do the Italians think about a German taking the prize?

Schulz-Hess: The Italians have no problem with it. They are totally accepting, even the amateurs who participate. The organizers, on the other hand, would rather have locals win. But there are too few Italians who participate, and only a few of them come from Venice. Most come from Austria, France or Germany. Last year, the committee basically "forbade" me from winning again.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And? Are you going to listen to them?

Schulz-Hess: No, of course not. One doesn't tell an Olympic champion that he can't participate next time around. But this year I'm planning to hold back a little. Some of my friends wanted to wear costumes and so I've created nine gowns for them. But I can't let you in on what they look like yet.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do so few Venetians take part? And what do the Italians think of Carnival?

Schulz-Hess: Most Venetians get out of the city and go skiing or elsewhere to avoid the chaos. Venetians have always had a kind of ambivalent relationship to tourists. Many live off tourism but are still totally annoyed by it. And you shouldn't forget that Venice only has about 60,000 residents to begin with.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 2008, you won with a costume titled "Luna Park," a dress modeled after an amusement park; and the year before that, you won with "La Montgolfiera," a costume in which you wore a hot-air balloon on your head ...

Schulz-Hess: Yes, I found the golden fabric at a store in Venice. The skirt was made from half of my laundry basket and the balloon from a Chinese lantern and some hair that I bought at an Africa shop. The headdress weighed almost 1.6 kilograms and was almost one meter tall. People gathered at St. Mark's Square could see me coming with my head decoration from quite far away.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you ever make politically-themed costumes?

Schulz-Hess: Yes, political themes are especially fun because they allow you to comment on current events. That's how Silvio Berlusconi once ended up on my skirt. That year, he'd claimed to lead a chaste life and said that he never told lies. I superimposed his face on the portrait of a Commedia dell'Arte (comedy of artists) jester and gave him a long nose. I also superimposed the face of Berlusconi's wife onto the body of Columbina, the jester's traditional companion, a simpleton with common sense.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's your recipe for success?

Schulz-Hess: People need something to look at: I always use a basic design modeled on 18th-century gowns -- a kind of mix between baroque and rococo. That means a corsage and crinoline made of metal, a cloak, a plunging neckline, short sleeves, lots of lace and beautiful, old brocade with lots of accessories like handbags, fans and shoes that fit with the garment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Aren't you up against a lot of competition?

Schulz-Hess: In recent years, fewer and fewer costume designers have taken part. I'm one of the few who still gets intensively involved -- and I am younger than most. Among the 1.5 million visitors, I'd say that there are about 500 to 1,000 who make a little more effort than most and, among those, 400 who really go all out. At the end there are usually about 30 masks that make the cut. In past years, it's always been the same people. They work on their costumes all year round and spend a small fortune.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And you?

Schulz-Hess: I takes me about 30 hours to make my costume and it usually costs betwee €20 and €60. I go to a lot of flee markets throughout the year, where I pick up Laura Ashley fabrics, lace and whatever else inspires me. Materials that are yellowed or have a patina work especially well.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is it that draws you to Carnival in Venice? Why not go to the festivities in Cologne?

Schulz-Hess: Cologne is too loud. Floats and alcohol are not my thing. I love the poetic silence in Venice. The reverential greetings between costumed guests are wonderful, it warms the heart. Besides, Venice with all its crumbling facades, palazzi and rats is not just a backdrop, it really makes the difference.

Interview conducted by Antje Blinda.

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