Carnival is the season for flipping life on its head — a time when it’s natural to see people wearing wigs, boas, wings and beads. On Mardi Gras day, men dressed in suits made of feathers? Totally normal. And women dressed like little girls — in bloomers, short satin skirts and bonnets? Totally normal too, and part of a long, subversive tradition.
Eve Abrams shares this history of the Baby Dolls, who break race and gender barriers, all on a Mardi Gras day.
Kim Vaz is a dean at Xavier University. She literally wrote the book on Baby Dolls.
“I always think of baby dolls as the perfect post-modern subject, because it’s impossible to pin down and say the Baby Dolls were this or that," Vaz says. "Constantly fluid, constantly changing.”
To understand how the Baby Dolls began, you have to imagine life about a hundred years ago, when Carnival krewes were made entirely of men, and women weren’t participants. They were spectators, tucked-away on balconies, safe.
“That was the way that Mardi Gras was being envisioned by a small group of very privileged men,” explains Vaz, “but nobody can contain Mardi Gras, because Mardi Gras is uncontainable.”
And for women who weren’t a part of white, middle class, respectable society, some made their own rules.
"Prostitutes have had a long history of coming out on Carnival day: cross-dressing as men, plying their trade, being even more hyperbolic.”
See for sex workers, Mardi Gras was a free day of advertising, a chance to say: if you want to have a good time, here we are! And that’s part of how the Baby Dolls began. The legend goes that in 1912, a group of prostitutes from Black Storyville masked in the streets, wearing pleated skirts, bloomers with ruffles and bows, poke bonnets, and stockings held up by garters. They were competing, costume-wise, with another group of women.
“So they came out and surprised everybody and they were smoking cigars and flinging money at men,” laughs Vaz. “This is the custom of where putting money in the garter came from. And they made a scene, in a whole reversal. Like, women weren’t supposed to wear short skirts. They had short skirts. Women weren’t supposed to be smoking. They were smoking cigars. Women weren’t supposed to have that kind of access to money. So they said here’s our money, and here men: you want some?”
Just like today, Mardi Gras a century ago was a time to play with culture and values.
“The period that the Baby Dolls developed in was a period in which popular culture was going through a shift,” Vaz explains. “There was the idea that you could use terms of endearment, like baby and poppa and mama for your lover. And then there was also the development of the culture of childhood, where children had things to play with, like dolls. Putting these ideas together with, oh you want something to play with, mister. I’m a doll. But I’m also very sexy.
“There was never one clear meaning about who the Baby Dolls are. They were both playing with these notions of I’m young, feminine, and virginal, but I’m also worldly, papa. So they played with the themes of the culture in ways that were very provocative.”
Provocative, and formidable.
“They had whips, they had razors, they had ice picks, they had bricks,” says Vaz. “Because they were tough women. You did not play with a woman who was a Baby Doll. She knew how to defend herself. They had that reputation, and they were very proud of that reputation.”
Masking as a woman was dangerous, and Baby Dolls wanted it known: if you take my money, or touch me in a way I do not like, I am prepared to deal with you. That’s how Louis Armstrong remembered the Baby Dolls on the Merv Griffin Show in 1970.
“They’d wear expensive Mardi Gras short dresses like the girls wear now, and they’d have all kinds of money in their legs,” Armstrong told Griffin.
“In the socks?” asked Griffin, “Stockings?”
“In the stockings, yeah, expensive stockings. And they had a switch they carried in their hands. And they’d whip you to death, too,” recalled Armstrong.
Masking as Baby Dolls grew and morphed, and over time, the Baby Dolls became an expected part of Black Mardi Gras, along with the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Mardi Gras Indians and Skull and Bones Gangs. Though what exactly a baby doll looked like completely depended on where you lived and when you lived there.
“Many men dressed as Baby Dolls,” Vaz stresses. “And some people report that they only saw men, and that they don’t even remember seeing women dressed up as Baby Dolls.”
In the second half of the last century, the Baby Doll tradition began fading. Integration united Black and white Mardi Gras, and the Baby Dolls didn’t jive with some ideals of middle class Black respectability. Even more important — in the 1960s the main stage for Black Mardi Gras, the tree-lined stretch of Claiborne Avenue running through the Tremé, was dug up and replaced with the hulking concrete of the elevated Interstate 10.
Generations later, in the beginning of this century, people who remembered the Baby Doll tradition decided to bring it back. Antoinette K-Doe was one of those people. She formed a group named after her late husband, the eccentric R&B star, called the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls. Like the original Baby Dolls, Antoinette K-Doe used masking to advertise and brand her business, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, as a place where locals and tourists could come and learn about New Orleans culture.
The Baby Dolls live on today, playing with culture, music and values, just as they did the beginning, by refusing to succumb to the idea that women who don’t fit in shouldn’t make themselves seen.
“They reject that,” explains Vaz. “They refuse not to be seen. They take Mardi Gras as an opportunity to say your definitions of what’s beautiful, of what’s correct, of what’s moral, and what’s obscene is not the only way to look at things.”
In short skirts and sometimes bawdy dance routines, the Baby Dolls assert their place in the community — for 100 years and counting — by parading in the streets.
This story made possible with the generous support of Louisiana Cultural Vistas.