Her work in Mobile began in the early 1960s, when she was originally hired to add just a few crystals to an existing Mardi Gras train. Her career soon took off, and now, at the age of eighty-three, she says that she has hand-sewn several hundred trains during her time in the southern Alabama city. Her trains have appeared in every Mardi Gras parade, Mardi Gras ball, and debutante ball since she moved to Mobile.
Thornton remains a fixture in the Mobile Mardi Gras scene, and she worked hard to get there. When Thornton first moved to the state and started making trains, people were not as receptive to her northern background as they are now. Upon her arrival, long-time Mobilians were not thrilled that a “Yankee” was the best dress and train maker in the area, and it took twenty years before most people would accept her. Now, however, she is not only accepted but also loved. In fact, this year a queen asked Thornton to tweak a train she created twenty-seven years ago. The alterations will include a bit more flair, but this year’s queen will be a walking piece of history, proudly carrying off a train nearly three decades old.
Ask her about her career presently, and Thornton becomes wistful for the days when she made a train for every queen in Mobile. Though the Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) only has one official queen, there are many different krewes, both public and secret, that have queens and courts. It is hard to give an exact number of krewes present in Mobile, but a safe estimate would be around twenty. These days, Thornton has slowed down a bit and only completes a few trains for the queens and their attendants each year. Accepting few clients was Thornton’s choice, but not her preference. She continues to love the glamour— the silk and satin, the crystals that glitter like the smiles of the queens—but recognizes that limited projects now suit her best.
Thornton only uses quality materials—and not just because she enjoys the finer things in life (as do the queens). She selects good materials because they hold up.
Usually the queens she dresses choose to honor their families in the train design, opting for the family crest to be prominently featured, but some queens choose to include personal, fun touches. For example, Thornton created a train for a Duke University graduate that featured the score of a winning championship basketball game. Another queen felt a special connection to the dragons of Chinese culture and wanted her train to feature a happy dragon. Thornton thought the design might be a disaster, but in the end, the queen was radiant in her dress featuring a dragon with red Swarovski crystal eyes.
Thornton only uses quality materials—and not just because she enjoys the finer things in life (as do the queens). She selects good materials because they hold up. The silks, satins, and Swarovski crystals she uses in each item she crafts also testify to the passion she has for her work. Others have noticed her passion as well, because over the years, Thornton has been interviewed by various local media, including the Mobile Press Register and many Mobile television stations.
Recently, however, Thornton’s talent became known to a wider audience. When noted filmmaker Margaret Brown came to town to produce a full-length documentary on the history of Mardi Gras in Mobile, and all that came with Carnival season, Thornton was on the interview list. The dress and train she made for the MCA queen is shown in the documentary (a film viewed as controversial by many in Mobile), even though her interview did not make the final cut of The Order of Myths.
Many of Thornton’s trains and dresses are prominently featured in the Mobile Carnival Museum, which opened in 2005 and is located in the heart of downtown Mobile, on Government Street. Amidst some of the most glitzy and glamorous pieces of Mobile history, Thornton’s trains— with their silk flowers, Swarovski crystals, and fur trims— stand out. They truly are fit for a queen.
This feature was previously published in Issue #107, Winter 2013.
Jessica Johnson is a graduate of the University of Alabama and proud former Alabama Heritage editorial intern. She lives, works, and writes in Montgomery, surrounded by Alabama culture and history. Her research interests include the history of the University of Alabama, Mobile Mardi Gras, and southern writers. She is currently pursuing a Masters of liberal arts at Auburn University in Montgomery.