Skip Bolen/Getty Images
The Baby Doll Ladies pose during Mardi Gras in New Orleans on Tuesday.
Just inside a room on the second floor of the Louisiana State
Museum's Presbytere, there's a large baby doll dress, big enough for a
woman to wear. And one did.
The costume and the baby bottle
next to it belonged to 85-year-old Miriam Batiste Reed, who was known as
a baby doll and one of the first women to parade in Mardi Gras. The
bottle and the dress are part of a new exhibition, They Call Me Baby Doll: A Mardi Gras Tradition.
baby dolls are a group of African-American men and women carnival
maskers," says Kim Vaz, dean at Xavier University. "They would dress up
on Mardi Gras day in short satin skirts, with bloomers, and they would
Vaz, who has written a new book about the baby
dolls, says the tradition dates back to 1912, when Jim Crow was the law
of the land in the South. It all started in New Orleans' red-light
district, which itself was divided along racial lines. The Storyville
area, where the sex industry was legal, was for white customers; black
customers had to go a few blocks away where prostitution was illegal,
State Library of Louisiana/AP
This 1942 photo provided by the Louisiana
State Museum shows Gold Digger Baby Dolls, one of the neighborhood
groups that adopted the "baby doll" costumes.
"[It was] another manifestation of how Jim Crow worked to
disenfranchise black people, even in the most sordid of industries," Vaz
Between these two red-light districts, there was a kind
of rivalry. One year the women in the black district heard that their
counterparts in Storyville were going to dress up for Mardi Gras; they
decided they needed to come up with some good costumes to compete.
they said, 'Let's just be baby dolls because that's what the men call
us. They call us baby dolls, and let's be red hot,' " Vaz says.
a woman "baby" had just made its way into the popular lexicon, with
songs like "Pretty Baby" written by New Orleans native Tony Jackson.
There was, however, something subversive about black sex workers
dressing this way.
"At that time, baby dolls were very rare and
very hard to get," Vaz says. "So it had all that double meaning in it
because African-American women weren't considered precious and
Just the fact that these prostitutes were masking
and going out into the street at all was a big deal. Women just did not
do that then. And as sex workers, these women were already taboo. Vaz
says they just kept piling on by appropriating males behaviors like
smoking cigars and flinging money at the men.
"If you went to touch their garter, they would hurt you," she says.
baby dolls carried walking sticks they would use in their dances, as
well as to defend themselves. It was about fun, Vaz says, but it was a
kind of laughter to keep from crying.
"At that time ...
residential segregation was practiced, job discrimination was practiced
[and] women didn't have the right to vote," she says. "The one way that
they could make a statement was through their dance and their dress and
their song. It's when you've exhausted all your legal remedies that you
have to use the culture to make a statement and express yourself."
came up with their own dance step they called "walking raddy." Pretty
soon, women in more "respectable" neighborhoods started masking baby
doll. But desegregation in the 1950s allowed black New Orleanians to do
more on Mardi Gras.
Then Interstate Highway 10 was built
directly through the neighborhood where African-Americans gathered to
celebrate carnival, disrupting many traditions. The baby dolls faded,
until several years ago.
On Mardi Gras day this week, one of the highlights of the Zulu
Parade was the Baby Doll Ladies. Dressed in royal blue rompers with
ruffles and bows, they danced down the street to a New Orleans' style of
hip hop called bounce.
The Baby Doll Ladies are the project of
Millisia White, who co-curated the new exhibition with Vaz. White is a
native New Orleanian and a choreographer, who had just started her own
dance company in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the storm, she
wanted to do something involving dance that celebrated New Orleans
"We weren't necessarily trying to resurrect the times
of 1912 in how we dress or how we look or how we present," White says.
"If anything is resurrected, it doesn't exactly come back the same
because we're not a replica, we're a continuation of the baby doll
White interviewed elders around New Orleans to learn
about the tradition. She and her brother, who's a DJ, put together a
look and a sound for the new baby dolls, and then they tested it out on
Mardi Gras day 2009, four years after Katrina.
"When they saw
us on the route ... I kept hearing like, 'Here come the new baby dolls.
The baby dolls are back,' " she says. "I could see in people's eyes for
the first time ... since Katrina, a glimpse of some kind of hope for a
new New Orleans."
It seems history is not just in the past in
New Orleans, it's dancing down the street right next to you, maybe
wearing bloomers and a bonnet.