Just a few decades ago, the baby doll tradition of New Orleans' black neighborhoods seemed destined to fade. Only a handful of women celebrated Carnival Day in the signature satin dresses and baby bonnets.
But this year, on Mardi Gras, at least a dozen groups will stroll through town wearing satin and toting booze-filled baby bottles, though their elaborately decorated purses no longer tote bricks as they did in the past.
Through tireless interviews and research, Vaz-Deville documented how the tradition was started about 1912 by prostitutes who worked in a red-light district not far from present-day City Hall.
“These wise, worldly women dressed as innocents … (who sought) independence and self-fulfillment,” Vaz-Deville wrote. “They called themselves the Million Dollar Baby Dolls.”
The original baby dolls were a rough-and-tumble bunch, as Vaz-Deville writes, noting that the women sometimes brought weapons to fend off men, including bricks, razors, knives and even ice picks.
Over the next 30 years, the tradition spread to circles that were seen as more respectable, namely housewives who lived in the city’s 6th and 7th wards who wanted to dress up on Mardi Gras and chose to imitate the daring Million Dollar Baby Dolls, though in a more prim version.
For a while, baby dolls of both versions, bawdy and demure, were common in some New Orleans neighborhoods.
The baby doll revival of today includes a range of looks, from younger participants, who want to push the envelope, to the women who helped revive it, who often look askance at the short skirts and deep cleavage of the new arrivals, despite the tradition’s red-light roots.
“I know that times have changed and younger people want to be baby dolls," said Lois Nelson, 64, of the Gold Diggers group, who also was crucial to the tradition’s revival. “But they got to keep it respectable.”
Through Carnival, parade routes also have been jammed with an explosion of new dance troupes, such as the Pussyfooters, some of whom acknowledge being influenced by baby dolls.
For the baby dolls themselves, the tradition offers a sense of liberation.
“I get to sashay the streets of New Orleans and act like I’m 10 years old, and everyone thinks it’s perfectly normal,” said Denise Trepagnier Murph, 63, of the 504 Dolls, whose group will include cousins and her husband.
Few baby doll groups follow a designated route. Spectators will have the most luck at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, where many groups make an appearance.
Alana “Mama Pretty” Harris, 45, and her group, the New Orleans Creole Belles, will share a toast at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant with chef Leah Chase, in honor of Harris’ aunt Virgie Castle, who worked for Chase for 40 years and is better known as the mother of Oretha Castle Haley.
Baby dolls also can be spotted by the company they keep. Traditionally, bonemen like the Northside Skull & Bone Gang have been flanked by baby dolls.
And a growing number of baby doll groups accompany Mardi Gras Indians, so Indian hotspots like St. Bernard Avenue and Second and Dryades streets are good places to look.
Among Uptown Indians, the Wild Magnolias are accompanied by the New Orleans Creole Belles, and baby dolls also are part of the Golden Eagles and Wild Tchoupitoulas tribes.
Downtown, the 504 will walk with Flaming Arrows; Black Storyville Baby Dolls meet up with Monogram Hunters; and Resa “Cinnamon Black” Bazile changes into the Voodoo Baby Doll Queen and moves with the Spirit of FiYiYi tribe.
Baby dolls are seen as a black community tradition, but the Golden Eagle group includes white women in costume. Michelle Longino, 54, says she is well aware of cultural appropriation and, as a result, is careful to follow the lead of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux since he was the person who asked her to doll with his tribe nearly nine years ago. “It’s not my heritage,” Longino said. “In a million years, I never would have done this if Monk hadn’t asked me to do it.”
Shannon “Queen Baby Doll Chocolate” Paxton, 41, and two other baby dolls, Lollipop and Yaya, go out with Queen Lynn Marshall, of the Wild Tchoupitoulas. Paxton made a staff, like some Indians carry, and used it to further the baby doll tradition. “I attach my umbrella to the actual stick,” she said.
The city’s two newest baby dolls groups both have Indian ties. Delwanda “Queen” Montana, 45, and her sister Tammy “Diamond” Montana, 53, nieces of the great Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, are debuting the Montana Dancing Baby Dolls this year.
Delwanda Montana sees the similarity in craft, she said. “You’re creating your nice baby doll outfit — your new suit,” she said, noting that the Montana dolls will join up in the 6th Ward with their cousins, sisters Janice “Baby Jan” Kimble, 62, and her older sister Merline Kimble, of the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, who were crucial to the babydoll revival.
Dressed in white, the two groups will promenade through the neighborhood, honoring their grandmother, baby doll Louise Recasner Phillips.
Near the intersection of St. Bernard and North Claiborne avenues, Katrice “Babydoll Katrice” Clark, 43, will be waiting for her tribe, dressed in the same colors as her brother, Spyboy Radee, of the Young Generation Warriors. In a way, Clark is a hybrid: Her dress contains some beadwork and she has made a feathered crown for herself.
Like other brand-new baby dolls, Clark’s participation is motivated chiefly by the tradition’s legacy, which she learned from elders and Vaz-Deville’s book. “I wanted to learn the history, not just going out there looking pretty,” she said.