A Guide to the Costumes of Rio Carnival

The costumes at Rio Carnival are nothing short of spectacular
The costumes at Rio Carnival are nothing short of spectacular | Filipe Costa / © Culture Trip
Photo of Sarah Brown
3 December 2019

The Brazilian carnival is the largest of its kind in the world, a vast national festival that combines music, dancing and famously extravagant costumes.

The outfits at Rio Carnival add spice and color to the celebrations, seducing the spectators at the parades with their sensual and invigorating designs. Yet the traditional attire is more than just for show; the costumes also designate different roles and teams within the carnival parades.

The Rio Carnival is a colorful spectacle of music, dancing and glitzy costumes | © Karol Kozlowski Premium RM Collection / Alamy Stock Photo


The parades in Rio de Janeiro take place at the Sambódromo (Sambadrome) venue, which morphs into an elaborate spectacle during the carnival. It can fit 90,000 people and contains permanent bleachers that stretch down the sides of a long street for 2,300 feet (700 meters). The climax of the event takes place on Sunday and Monday – highly anticipated moments when the best samba schools in the city compete. Months of painstaking practice have gone into each performance, and the goal is to be crowned the best samba school of the carnival.

Thousands of spectators fill the stands of the Sambódromo each year during the Rio Carnival | © Fernando Quevedo de Oliveira / Alamy Stock Photo
Samba dancers wear vibrant costumes with flashy accessories | © Agencia Brasil / Alamy Stock Photo

Costume choices

The costumes play a key role at these competitions. Each school chooses a theme, which is carried through the dress of the performers. It’s each school’s responsibility to design and produce the costumes according to its selected theme. The majority of them are handcrafted with every detail, sequin and feather carefully considered and sewn on. Nudity is strictly forbidden, although the designs push the boundaries with well-placed jewels and patterns. The get-ups tend to be colorful, with enormous, dazzling headdresses and overstated accessories. The overall effect is stunning.

Each samba school chooses a different theme with corresponding costumes | © Fernando Quevedo de Oliveira / Alamy Stock Photo

The performance during the parade is divided into what are known as ‘wings.’ Each wing represents a specific role or location within the parade and features a particular outfit. The Ground Wing comprises the dancers and musicians who participate on the ground surrounding the float. Tourists can buy costumes and join in this lower-level part of the parade, moving from the sidelines and into the pulsating samba beats and euphoric dancing crowd. The Float Wing consists of the performance that takes place on top of the floats themselves. The samba schools take this section very seriously, as this act is under the keen eyes of the judges. Dances at this level require dedicated rehearsals, and the performers must know the songs and steps by heart. The costumes for this part of the parade are valued at around $900 to $10,000 each.

The costumes include elaborate headdresses | © Andrew Woodley / Alamy Stock Photo

Street parties

Street parties are all about dressing up as elaborately as possible, with no mandatory costume guidelines – the choice of fancy dress is up to the partygoer. Popular selections include police officer, sailor and pirate outfits. Themes are optional, yet the majority of people at least wear bright colors, glitter, face paint or vibrant accessories. Also, remember to leave the layers at home; even without considering how temperatures rise in a large crowd, Rio’s summers are hot.

Various neighborhoods also host parades | © Lucas Dumphreys / Culture Trip
The street parties feature sparkling costumes, too | © Filipe Costa / Culture Trip