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The “Baby Dolls”

Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition

Kim Marie Vaz

Publication Year: 2013

One of the first women’s organizations to mask and perform during Mardi Gras, the Million Dollar Baby Dolls redefined the New Orleans carnival tradition. Tracing their origins from Storyville-era brothels and dance halls to their re-emergence in post-Katrina New Orleans, author Kim Marie Vaz uncovers the fascinating history of the “raddy-walking, shake-dancing, cigar-smoking, money-flinging” ladies who strutted their way into a predominantly male establishment. The Baby Dolls formed around 1912 as an organization of African American women who used their profits from working in New Orleans’s red-light district to compete with other Black prostitutes on Mardi Gras. Part of this event involved the tradition of masking, in which carnival groups create a collective identity through costuming. Their baby doll costumes—short satin dresses, stockings with garters, and bonnets—set against a bold and provocative public behavior not only exploited stereotypes but also empowered and made visible an otherwise marginalized female demographic. Over time, different neighborhoods adopted the Baby Doll tradition, stirring the creative imagination of Black women and men across New Orleans, from the downtown Tremé area to the uptown community of Mahalia Jackson. Vaz follows the Baby Doll phenomenon through one hundred years with photos, articles, and interviews and concludes with the birth of contemporary groups, emphasizing these organizations’ crucial contribution to Louisiana’s cultural history.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Cover, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. i-vii


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pp. ix-ix

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PRELUDE: On Being an Example of Hope

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pp. xiii-xv

Mardi Gras maskers of the Baby Doll tradition began as a small group of determined, independent-minded Black Creole women of New Orleans who came together and rebelled against the many constraints they faced regarding social segregation and gender ...

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FOREWORD: Black Storyville

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pp. xvii-xix

Black Storyville was the poor person’s version of the famed Storyville red-light district a short distance away, perhaps without the fine champagne. It was within walking distance to the French Quarter, the Central Business District, and Central City. The ordinance ...

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INTRODUCTION: A New Orleans Mardi Gras Masking Tradition

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pp. 1-6

The popular New Orleans tradition of dressing up as a Baby Doll on Carnival Day had its origins around 1912. The Baby Dolls began as a kind of Carnival club for women who were working in the dance halls and brothels. These women worked and lived in what was ...

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1. Gender, Race, and Masking in the Age of Jim Crow

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pp. 7-27

At the turn of the twentieth century, and well before, African Americans in New Orleans were barred by segregation from participating in White Mardi Gras balls and parades. African Americans were confined to servant-class activity in White krewes and ...

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2. Women Dancing the Jazz

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pp. 28-45

The ties between the Million Dollar Baby Dolls and jazz musicians is complex, and much of this relationship remains unknown. What is known, however, is that these were women who “danced the jazz.”1 They improvised movements to the new rhythms and ...

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3. “Oh You Beautiful Doll”: The Baby Doll as a National Sex Symbol in the Progressive Era

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pp. 46-77

Songs celebrating women as “dolls” and “babies” flourished in the early years of the twentieth century. “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” written by A. Seymour Brown (1911), and “Pretty Baby,” created by musician and New Orleans native Tony Jackson (1912 or earlier), and other ...

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4. A New Group of Baby Dolls Hits the Streets

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pp. 78-99

Mardi Gras revelries in antebellum New Orleans consisted of neighbors and friends hosting private and public balls and masquerade parties in their own homes, as well as taking part in informal street processions. Enslaved Africans and free people of ...

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5. “We Are No Generation”: Resurrecting the Central Role of Dance to the Creation of New Orleans Music

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pp. 100-118

In 1940 Robert McKinney asked, “Who is this Baby Doll and why is she referred to as such?” The answer lies in the co-location of the sociopolitical world in which these women were embedded with vernacular cultural traditions. By 1912, New Orleans Black expressive culture ...

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pp. 119-125

No work, carried out in love, is performed in isolation. I thank Millisia White, founder and director of the New Orleans Society of Dance, for an amazing experience in collaborative knowledge creation. Millisia and I met in January 2010 when she was sponsoring a ...


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pp. 127-151


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pp. 153-165


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pp. 167-173


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pp. 175-178

E-ISBN-13: 9780807150719
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807150702

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 826853763
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The “Baby Dolls”

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Carnival -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- History.
  • African American women -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- History.
  • African American women -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- Social conditions.
  • New Orelans (La.) -- Social life and customs.
  • New Olreans (La.) -- Race relations.
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