Sunday, February 3, 2013

Carnival's Black Baby Doll Societies

The oldest known Baby Doll parade photo, circa 1932

For decades, the Baby Dolls were among the more enduring mysteries of this city's African American Carnival celebration. Grown women dressed in vintage baby bonnets and short frilly skirts showing off their legs and strutting their stuff were fixtures in Zulu parades for ages and often appeared with Marid Gras Indians and the equally mysterious Skull and Bone gangs, but by the 1960s they began to fade away, possibly due to emerging concerns about "negative stereotypes." By then, few recalled their history, or cared. In recent decades they experienced a modest revival that became more robust after hurricane Katrina, but it took a new book, The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, by Kim Marie Vaz--and this Presbytere exhibition of images, costumes and memorabilia--to finally put it all in perspective. In Vaz's telling, they were really pioneering feminists. The first such group, the "Million Dollar Baby Dolls," were not only the first all female Mardi Gras marching society, they also played by their own rules. Founded in 1912 by black sex workers at the unofficial Uptown red light zone in response to a carnival celebration at the then-legal Storyville district, they reportedly decided to call themselves "baby dolls" because that's what their pimps called them, and their little girl costumes were more revealing than anything women dared wear on the streets at the time. Proud of their prowess, they even tossed dollar bills as throws. 

Modern Baby Dolls on the march, post-Katrina
 The early Baby Dolls could be a raucous lot even compared to their modern counterparts as some of the older depictions made clear, even as their baby costumes cast their bawdy shenanigans in high relief. Their influence was such that they eventually spawned many "respectable" copy cat groups--a process facilitated in part by the new found acceptability of short skirts in the 1920s "flapper" era, though even the flappers often seemed modest in comparison--and in the oldest known photograph, a circa 1932 procession, top, there is no way to tell if they were sex workers or "respectable" imitators. As with so much of this city's history, the available historical documentation only underscores the depth of the underlying mysteries. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

They Call Me Baby Doll: Mixed Media Exhibition on the Black Carnival Baby Doll Societies, Through February, Presbytere, Louisiana State Museum, 751 Chartres St., 568-6968. Left: Early 20th century Baby Doll Olivia Green, date unknown.