At the turn of the 20th century, a group of Black sex workers in New Orleans started a tradition that became a Mardi Gras mainstay. They called themselves Baby Dolls, and they remain a symbol of Black female resistance and resilience.
The New Orleans district known as “Back O’ Town” was a swamp; a low-lying area that was home to the city’s first cemetery. After the Civil War, freed slaves moved into the area along with Italian immigrants, and by the turn of the 20th century, Back O’ Town was an ethnically mixed community. In 1897, as the result of a city ordinance, it also became known as “Black Storyville”—a quasi-legal red-light district for African Americans, filled with brothels, saloons, crime, and drugs. But despite its reputation, there was more to Back O’ Town than prostitution and gambling. Residents raised children there, earned a living, and created cultural traditions that have endured. Louis Armstrong was their most celebrated son. And, because African Americans were barred from participating in Mardi Gras, Back O’ Town’s residents “masked”—created a collective identity and put on a costume that reflected their sense of themselves—and paraded through the streets on Carnival Day.
It was from this neighborhood that the New Orleans tradition of Black women dressing up as Baby Dolls arose. Originating around 1912, the Baby Dolls began as a kind of club for women who were working in the dance halls and brothels. Imitating little girls with short skirts and bonnets, the maskers from Back O’ Town were playing with conventional, paradoxical notions of gender. These wise, worldly women embodied the ambitions of the first-wave feminists of the Progressive Era, seeking independence and self-fulfillment.
Understanding the sociopolitical world of the original Baby Dolls is key to understanding them as the courageous and trailblazing women that they were. Black Creole women who were born between 1885 and 1905 would have to contend, for their entire lives, with racial repression and legal segregation. It would affect every aspect of their lives. Their restricted access to education, healthcare, and employment would determine their level of literacy and longevity as well as their ability to accumulate wealth. It was not unusual for Black girls to leave school in third grade to earn money. Occupations open to Black women were limited to sewing, laundering, domestic servitude, factory work, teaching—and prostitution. The Baby Dolls were proud of their independence and made no excuses for their life choices. They created an art form by drawing on the tools of their culture, united in entrepreneurial sisterhood.
In the early 20th century, Black sex workers plied their trade in two main areas. “Storyville” was a legal district that allowed prostitution and gambling, and had been established in 1897 to restrict criminal activities to a single neighborhood. But Storyville catered only to white men. Thus, Back O’ Town, the semi-legal vice district which served Black men, became known as “Black Storyville.”
Storyville was aggressively marketed as a sexual playground for white men, and became famous for its large mansions, wealthy madams, light-skinned Black sex workers, music, and gambling. By 1910, Black women made up 28 percent of the sex workers in Storyville. And while they worked in both neighborhoods, dark-skinned Black women labored in poorer conditions and earned less than light-skinned Black women, who more often worked in “high-class” bordellos.
The dark-skinned women in both Storyville and Black Storyville wore short dresses, displayed money in their stockings, and sang erotic songs. And they danced. At work, they danced nude on tabletops and bar counters. They competed to see who could “shimmy” the best. They would lie on the floor while men fed them candy. Because of their dark skin, these women were barred from places that catered to white men. Instead, they frequented a popular after-hours gathering spot for musicians. They dressed up and carried their own money as a show of pride and independence. If they were working in Storyville, they referred to the women of Black Storyville as “rats.” If they were from Black Storyville, they accused the Storyville women of thinking their “asses were silver.” Their rivalries extended to jealousy over men, money, and clothes. They fought with “boiling” words and hair pulling. There were frequent melees that culminated in police intervention.
It was out of this rivalry that a masking tradition was born. At the end of a long night of work, and after hearing that the Black sex workers of Storyville were planning to mask for the upcoming Carnival season, a Black working girl named Beatrice Hill made a decision. It was time for the women of Back O’ Town to make a statement. She called them together “about three in the morning after they had finished work,” she recalled, many years later, to reporter Robert McKinney.
According to Hill, “The room was packed.” She told the women gathered that she wanted them all “to mask up for Mardi Gras to outdo all [the other Black women] maskers.” While discussing just how they planned to mask, Hill recalled that one woman jumped up and said, “Let’s be ourselves, let’s be Baby Dolls, that’s what the pimps call us.” According to Hill, that “suited everybody.” In 1912 the idea of a grown woman as a Baby Doll was a titillating image to arouse men’s sexual desire, and the women were poised to use that image strategically. “Everybody agreed to have 50 dollars in her stocking and that we could see who had the most money,” said Hill. “Somebody says, ‘What’s the name of this organization?’ And we decided to call ourselves ‘The Million Dollar Baby Dolls,’ and be red hot.”
“We decided to call ourselves ‘The Million Dollar Baby Dolls,’ and be red hot.”
Hill told McKinney that their initial outfits consisted of rainbow colors, with panel backs and fronts made out of gold lace. Some women made their own and some had them made. “There was 30 of us, the best whores in town,” Hill recalled of that first outing. “We was all good-lookin’ and had our stuff with us. Man, we had money all over us, even in our bloomers, and they didn’t have no zippers.”
Each woman had to put up her own money to make her costume, including the real money overflowing from the garter belt that rested snugly on her thigh, which has come to be a signature component of the masking tradition. Money was key to the costume to showcase their economic prowess. They were known for “walking raddy” (a kind of strut that would end with the steps needed to “shake on down”), singing songs, drinking, smoking reefer, and street fighting, complete with brick throwing and razor flashing.
On Carnival day, “We went [to Storyville], and talk about ‘Putting on the Ritz!’ We showed them [women] how to put on the Ritz. The gals couldn’t do much but look at us. They had to admit we was stuff,” Hill recalled with pride. “Boy, we was smoking cigars and flinging 10 and 20 dollar bills through the air.” All that flashing and tossing away money made a scene. “When we started pitching dollars around we had [Black men] falling on their faces trying to get that money.” But the rivalry was short lived. As Hill noted, “We all made peace.”
Masking as Baby Dolls allowed Black sex workers to gain recognition from the only people who would see them as human beings—other Black women in the sex industry. Even though they were rivals, they could offer each other validation in a way that was impossible to garner from middle-class Americans, Black or white, male or female, rich or poor. With each other, these Black women could experience the pleasure of mutual recognition.
The Baby Dolls were a product not just of their circumstances, but also of the popular culture at large. During the time that the Million Dollar Baby Dolls were being established, “Baby Dollism” was in the air. Songs celebrating women as “dolls” and “babies”—including “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” (1911) and “Pretty Baby” (1912 or earlier)—were flourishing. Meanwhile, a social and political revolution was taking place in the United States. Women had agitated and subsequently were successful in winning the vote. They were making forays into formerly male-dominated spaces from the professions to the saloons. This surely must have sent fear up the spines of men who were beginning to lose control. So it’s little wonder that this era produced many wildly popular songs about women as babies and dolls. Expressing both the excitement and titillation of grown-up women acting like coy and innocent girls, these songs reflected the changing arrangements between the sexes.
Costuming as Baby Dolls was also an obvious choice for the women of “Black Storyville,” due to the clothes they wore as part of their trade. The “chippie” was a dress-like garment that stopped at the knee and could be easily shed. When he was young and naive, jazz musician Sidney Bechet was astonished to see women so briefly attired. “I didn’t know what all those women were doing hanging around the doorways in front of those houses,” he recalled. “They was all wearing those real short skirts…and I asked my mother, ‘What are all those little girls doing standing like that?’ They didn’t look like little girls really, but I hadn’t ever seen no women wearing clothes like that.” Up to that time, only a few females could bare their limbs in short skirts—little girls and women in the theater.
For many years after, it was a tradition for The Million Dollar Baby Dolls to parade on the street together wearing short pleated skirts, bloomers with ruffles and bows, waists or halters, poke bonnets, and socks or stockings held up by garters for securing dollar bills. They donned wigs of corkscrew curls in various colors, including blonde, and they made extensive use of makeup. Their dresses were made of pink or blue satin to achieve the goal of looking as innocent as possible. They were sexy and sometimes raunchy, and sang bawdy lyrics to vaudeville show tunes, playing tambourines and cowbells, chanting, and dancing.
Coming from the dance halls and brothels, The Million Dollar Baby Dolls specialized in “the naked dance.” “What I saw there I ain’t never saw before,” reported a male jazz musician who witnessed the scene in 1927. “It was the Baby Dolls…kicking high their pretty legs in the fancy lace stockings, filled with 50 and 100 dollar bills.” Baby Dolls gained a reputation as agile dancers, sharp entrepreneurs in the sex industry, and as tough women. Noted chef Austin Leslie, who saw the Baby Dolls in their heyday, said of them, “All those women dressed like little babies, in hot pink and sky blue. You fool with them, they’d cut you, too.”
“All those women dressed like little babies, in hot pink and sky blue. You fool with them, they’d cut you, too.”
No one knows when Baby Doll masking entered the mainstream African American community’s Mardi Gras tradition, but in time, the practice spread to the Creole neighborhoods of New Orleans. There, some women had support groups—known as “social and pleasure clubs”—where they plannned their masking for Carnival. Well respected in their communities, these women began masking in groups as Baby Dolls. Some clubs wore short, sexy costumes imitating The Million Dollar Baby Dolls, and some innovated with costumes more reminiscent of toy dolls, complete with lollipops, pacifiers, and bottles. They were often accompanied by a mock band consisting of male family members. By the 1940s, the Baby Doll masking tradition was well established.
One current New Orleans resident, Miriam Batiste Reed, has memories of her mother, Alma, masking as a Baby Doll back when Miriam was eight, around 1935. The Batiste family became well known for originating the Baby Doll tradition in upscale Black New Orleans society. Alma Batiste formed the Golden Slipper Club, a group of women and men who masked as both Baby Dolls and as the Dirty Dozen. “The Dirty Dozen was the nickname for the men who came out wearing unionsuits—all-in-ones with flaps in the back,” Batiste Reed recalled. “They would wipe ‘cha-cha’—relish mixed with mustard or peanut butter—on their bottoms.” But mostly, the men liked to dress in women’s clothes and bonnets. Alma would dress in pink bloomers and an apple smock, fishnet stockings, and a pair of black Baby Doll shoes. The Golden Slipper Club’s Baby Dolls were accompanied by Batiste Reed’s father, Walter Batiste, who played the guitar, and her brothers and other relatives made up the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band.
People outside Black Storyville masked as Baby Dolls for a variety of reasons. “I didn’t have a baby doll growing up,” recalled Batiste Reed. “They wasn’t making Black baby dolls at that time. And I did not have a white baby doll.” For girls like Batiste Reed, their mothers and neighbors became living dolls for their children.
Those following the highly sexualized Million Dollar Baby Dolls tradition and the social clubs who paraded as more innocent-looking Baby Dolls existed at the same time. But both traditions started to die out in the 1960s as racial integration brought African Americans more opportunities to participate in what had previously been white Carnival.
Today, however, revivals of the practice are alive on the streets of New Orleans. Merline Kimble, Janice Kimble, Lois Nelson, and their friends revived the Kimble’s grandparents’ Gold Digger Baby Doll tradition, which they continue to practice in the Treme. Janice Kimble also makes appearances with the Treme Baby Dolls. The late Antoinette K-Doe, known for her Mother-in-Law Lounge, spearheaded a similar revival. A contemporary group called the Black Storyville Baby Dolls was asked to serve as honor guard at the 2015 funeral of 92-year-old Gloria Leblanc Boutte—a women who loved the tradition so much, she was buried in her Baby Doll dress. And Mardi Gras celebrations since 2017 have been graced with members of the Mahogany Blue Baby Dolls, a well-dressed group of friends who have given themselves evocative Baby Doll monikers like Magnolia Rose, Lady Lotus, Gentilly Lace, and Belle Ame.
Resa “Cinnamon Black” Wilson-Bazile masks with her Treme Million Dollar Baby Dolls and is revered as a bridge between the Baby Dolls she watched in the 1970s and the revival the tradition is experiencing today. “Nowadays a lot of women watch us. Because of the competition, the costumes have begun to change,” she says. “We started decorating our shoes. When others started copying us, we started decorating the outside of our umbrellas, then I threw in decorating the inside. Then they thought to do the handle. Then they started decorating the pacifier. Then they started to decorate the bottle. If you look at the history books, you will see how the costumes have been evolving.”
The New Orleans Creole Belle Baby Dolls, led by Alana Harris, was founded in 2012. “I grew up in New Orleans. I have memories of the Baby Dolls from when I was a small child. I just remember them sashaying on sidewalks,” says Harris. “I never really knew the meaning behind it, but I knew you needed to get out of the way and give them their respect. I remember the Baby Dolls just dancing along, singing and blowing kisses. When I first masked as a Baby Doll, I felt exhilaration like I had never felt. I felt like I was home.” Since that first time, masking has developed a deeper significance for Harris. “It has given me a platform to preserve the culture developed by Black women who came before me,” she says. “It is for a purpose. Do not mess with the Baby Dolls because they stand for something.”
By Kim Vaz-Deville
Portions of this story have been reprinted with permission from the book Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, 2018); the article “They Call Me Baby Doll” (64Parishes.org); and the book The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition (LSU Press, 2013); all by Kim Vaz-Deville. This story originally appeared in the May/June 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
Top photo: Baby Dolls posing during Mardi Gras, 1942. Photo courtesy of State Library of Louisiana.
This article originally appeared in BUST’s may/June 2019 print edition. Subscribe today!