The Barrier-Breaking Baby Dolls of Mardi Gras

Baby DollsAs Mardi Gras–Fat Tuesday–is celebrated today in New Orleans, we take a look at a newly revealed women’s “masking” tradition that has been revived in the city.

The “Baby Doll” masking tradition at Mardi Gras in New Orleans developed from women who worked in “Black Storyville”–the “uptown” part of the legal red-light district that operated in the city from 1897 to 1917. The city ordinance that created Storyville divided it into a predominately White area (“downtown”), where black and white women prostitutes served white men, and a Black area that was not only located  in the Black community but had Black women prostitutes serving Black and working-class white men.

In 1912, when the Million Dollar Baby Dolls were formed, black women in New Orleans (and nationwide) had very little opportunities for education or jobs. Women were not able to vote and Jim Crow laws were firmly entrenched, regulating every aspect of black life from voting to education. It was routine for girls to leave school and help to support their families either through domestic work or through work in cigar factories. Anywhere black women worked, they were at risk for sexual harassment and abuse. But, importantly, prostitution was a legal occupation.

Also around this time, the current of the “New Woman” permeated the progressive era. Women were shaking off Victorian restrictions and the music called jazz was not only the soundtrack of young people’s lives but a revolutionary form of culture, representing a desire for freedom of self and sexual expression.

Women formed the Million Dollar Baby Dolls–who costumed themselves in short satin dresses, stockings with garters and bonnets–as a social and pleasure club, sponsoring dances and hiring jazz bands. They were proud of the fact that they covered their “public expense” of masking through their entrepreneurship.

Generally, women who masked in the waking hours of the 20th century were known as women who liked to have a good time. They often labored as domestics or had other working-class jobs. They tended to be single and fiercely independent. When the Million Dollar Baby Dolls were organizing, the founding member of the male Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club invited the Baby Dolls to join them in their organization, but as Baby Doll Beatrice Hill recalled, “We told [Old] Johnny [Metoyer] we were out to do up some fun in our own way and we were not stopping at nothing, no indeed. Yes sir, the Zulus had their gang and we had ours.”

The Baby Dolls were known as tough women, but the group also included men–who masked as Baby Dolls themselves. Creating their own clothes and props, employing the second-line and parading traditions, celebrating their love of jazz and dancing and adult entertainment, they formed a Mardi Gras tradition that transcended the oppressive aspects of everyday life.

Miriam Batiste-Reed links the Baby Doll past with the present. The daughter of Golden Slipper Baby Doll, Alma Trepagnier Batiste, Batiste-Reed was immersed in carnival as a child. As her brother, musician, Lionel Batiste recalled,

The Baby Dolls were my momma, my aunt and the older women in the Tremé area [one of the first African American neighborhoods in New Orleans, where Creoles of color settled and formed a rich cultural heritage]. They came out masked at carnival. … Baby Dolls would wear a nice hat, short dresses. They’d wear the leg stockings, put paper money in there. But if you reached for the woman’s leg, then you’re in trouble. People lined up to see us come by; the Baby Dolls would dance and play tambourines.

In the 1970s, Miriam decided to revive her family’s traditions. With her sister Felicia and her brothers, nieces and nephews, she took to the streets. The women dressed as Baby Dolls, and the men brought back the kazoo band, known as the Original 6th Ward Dirty Dozen. She has since served as a mentor to most of the current Baby Doll masking groups.

The Baby Doll masking practice continues today as a living art form. This tradition has never been studied before, either because as working-class Black women the Baby Dolls were devalued or not taken seriously, and because the predominant male researchers studying New Orleans music, dance and masking traditions  routinely overlooked women’s participation in various aspects of New Orleans culture. My book, The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, and the accompanying exhibit, “They Call Me Baby Doll: A Mardi Gras Tradition” at the Louisiana State Museum Presbytere ,provide belated recognition of an important part of American culture that has not been acknowledged until now.

 

 

Comments

  1. I love when something so different presents itself to scholars as objects for study. Carnival in New Orleans is not commonly understood as the complex cultural phenomenon it is–it’s so much more than merely the best street party in the world. Kim Vaz’s unpacking of this gendered and dissident tradition contributes to a valuable and nuanced understanding of masking, New Orleans, dancing in the streets, and bringing high what was low, and low what was high. I look forward to seeing the exhibit, and reading more on this blogspace.

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