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VENICE, Italy (Reuters Life!) - From milk cartons to hot air balloons and from Elizabeth I to rubbish bin-inspired outfits, the Venice Carnival saw it all this year when it came to costumes.
Despite the economic crisis, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the Italian canal city for the centuries-old celebration, organizers said, for more than 10 days of parties that end on Tuesday.
From a drag queen beauty pageant to chefs teaching recipes, revelers had numerous attractions to choose from on top of street concerts, theater, and acrobatic performances.
"People may have less money in their pockets but they don't have any less desire to entertain themselves, in fact maybe they have more because things aren't going well," Mauro Pizzigati, president of Venezia Marketing & Eventi, which organized the carnival, said.
The good weather was an added bonus, meaning expectations of 800,000 revelers were topped with more than 1 million people seen enjoying the celebrations by the end of Tuesday, he said.
One of the main events was the masked costume contest, where outfits inspired by cats, frogs, angels and even a kitchen vied for the top prize. Highlights included a dress whose wide bottom was made out of studded umbrellas, a trio of rubbish-inspired outfits and opulent historical costumes depicting nobility.
Parading in the central St Mark's Square, the jury picked a group of Germans who looked to Marco Polo and China for their outfits that had skirts made out of Chinese bubble lampshades.
"People come because it is a passion, the crowds are fantastic," Alessandro Travaglini, who was wrapped in a mock hot air balloon. "The masks are nicer than last year."
The Venice Carnival began centuries ago as a period of excess before the rigors of Lent, the 40 days of fasting that traditionally precede Easter. Venetians could then hide their identities behind masks and do as they pleased.
While the masses photograph the extraordinary outfits on display, the rich enjoy themselves with lavish parties, usually held in palaces along the Grand Canal, Venice's main waterway.
Dressed in costumes that easily fetch more than 1,000 euros, detailed with pearls and crystals, the party dwellers try to recreate the lavish atmosphere of the 1700s.
The most exclusive, Ballo del Doge, where tickets cost 1,000 euros each, did not disappoint with 300 guests from various nations including a European Prince and the auction of a Ferrari.
For this year, the 16th, the theme was "Golden Passion" with 95 artists for eight hours of celebration at the Palazzo Pisani Moretta venue, lit by more than 2,000 candles.
"I thought of gold as sun, as an energy ... We need energy, we need confidence," organizer and costume designer Antonia Sautter said. "I think the right color to choose was a color that inspires energy, and gives the will to go ahead."
Sautter said she was worried about possible last minute cancellations but there were no signs of crisis on the night.
Tourists from all over the world came to visit Venice during the carnival, vastly outnumbering the more than 60,000 residents of the city's historical center. Some locals complained that they were spending less and not all hotel rooms were booked.
"People definitely aren't spending like they used to. Some just come for the day and head back," one shopkeeper said, adding that the carnival was more of a tourist event. "Venetians don't enjoy it like it used to be. Now it's all too chaotic."
Editing by Paul Casciato