Last weekend, as the Black Storyville Baby Dolls grabbed a quick cup of coffee together, they carried glue guns, glitter and fabric so that they could work on their Baby Doll costumes while they talked.
Historian and longtime New Orleans tour guide Dianne Honoré, 51, held up her satin top and frowned a little at the fit. But the fabric was perfect.
“Baby Dolls are always dressed in satin. And they always wear gloves,” said Honoré, a member of the Black Storyville Baby Dolls, a new women’s walking group that debuts Tuesday as part of a citywide Baby Doll comeback.
The new group hopes to codify some of the customs within the Baby Doll tradition.
“We are redefining what it means to be a Baby Doll,” Honoré said.
Though sexy Mardi Gras costumes are not uncommon in New Orleans, few carry a history as rich as the Baby Dolls. Though the tradition later spread more widely, it began with black prostitutes who flouted society’s standards of respectability to strut the streets in tiny outfits, showing off how much money they’d earned.
“Being Baby Dolls allows women to be the center of attention, not something that women have always been able to do,” said Xavier University professor Kim Vaz-Deville, who chronicled the groups’ history and mini-revival in her 2013 book “The Baby Dolls,” which this year is a finalist for the citywide reading event One Book New Orleans.
Lauren Blouin, 52, Honoré’s cousin and fellow Baby Doll, finds the costume freeing.
“It feels womanly and radical,” she said.
Beyond the satin and gloves, the costumes vary. Over the past century, most women who dressed as Baby Dolls have strutted the streets in skimpy dresses and baby bonnets. Many carry umbrellas. To show less flesh, some wear baby bloomers; others pull on bicycle shorts.
Often the women wear garters holding money, a knife or a small flask. Sometimes they walk with cigars in their mouths or pack baby bottles, usually as substitutes for flasks.
Indian chief Tootie Montana remembers making Baby Doll outfits that included black whips — to keep admirers at bay, Vaz-Deville said.
Traditions also vary from group to group. Honoré and her group are especially conscious of the history behind the tradition and have created a “route sheet” of their planned route and stops on Mardi Gras morning, much as social aid and pleasure clubs create route sheets for their Sunday afternoon second-line parades.
“I tried to make every stop meaningful,” said Honoré, who in six stops covers black culture, music and food; slavery; and civil rights battles that helped overcome segregation.
Historically, groups of Baby Dolls used to be common in New Orleans’ African-American, working-class neighborhoods, much as Mardi Gras Indian tribes are today.
But today, depending on how you count, there are at most nine active Baby Doll groups in the city. By contrast, the number of Indian tribes tops two dozen.
A slow but steady Baby Doll revival began just before Hurricane Katrina when a group of Treme women led by Merline Kimble began to periodically resurrect Kimble’s grandmother’s group, the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, to make appearances at special events and on holidays.
Around the same time, seamstress and bar owner Antoinette K-Doe brought out a group of about 20 Baby Dolls from her bar on North Claiborne Avenue.
Honoré’s group totals five women, including Blouin and friends Joell Lee, Anita Oubre and Arsene DeLay, plus one child, Evangeline Marsalis, 4, the daughter of musician Jason Marsalis.
Also debuting this year, in addition to the Black Storyville group, are the Creole Belles, who will appear Uptown with the Wild Magnolia tribe of Indians. Other Baby Doll groups also will be coming out Tuesday with Mardi Gras Indian tribes: the Golden Eagles, Wild Tchoupitoulas and Spirit of FiYiYi tribes.
The Black Storyville Baby Dolls plan to meet up for a while with the Hard Head Hunters tribe of Indians at Bullet’s Sports Bar in the 7th Ward. “We’re gracing them with the presence of the Baby Dolls,” Blouin said.
The Black Storyville Baby Dolls will start out at 6 a.m. at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme with a toast to museum founder and local cultural encyclopedia Sylvester Francis, whose aunt Anita Thomas was a member of the Satin Sinners Baby Dolls in the 1940s and 1950s.
Vaz-Deville credits Francis with helping her understand the significance of Baby Dolls.
The city’s newest group of Baby Dolls will be accompanied from the Backstreet Museum by Lee’s and Oubre’s sons, Jaron Simpson and Nick Oubre, who are masking in the style of a Skull and Bones gang, another long-held tradition that provided Mardi Gras entertainment for black neighborhoods during an era when city segregation rules kept blacks away from white areas of the city on the holiday.
The Indians also were part of that Jim Crow-era tradition. But their roots are different from the Baby Dolls. Mardi Gras Indians say their tradition dates back to at least the 1880s, when blacks decided to “mask Indian” out of respect for the Indians who earlier had taken in escaped slaves.
The Baby Dolls trace their origins to about 1912 in Black Storyville, the segregated red-light district near today’s City Hall that gave Honoré’s group its name.
The women masking in 1912 chose the name “Baby Dolls,” which is what their pimps called them. Their outfits and attitude soon became popular on Mardi Gras Day with wives and young women of the nearby 6th and 7th wards — though some of them may have worn their skirts a little longer than the Storyville ladies, according to pictures of the time.
There was still a wariness about the tradition decades later. Honoré grew up in the 6th Ward and Blouin in the 7th Ward in the 1960s. They remember their mothers warning them away from Baby Dolls. Honoré’s mom called them “loose, hot women,” while Blouin was told to stay away from “those barroom women.”
Vaz-Deville quotes famous chef Austin Leslie in her book as remembering women dressed “like little babies” who, like Mardi Gras Indians of that era, had well-deserved tough reputations. “You fool with them, they’d cut you too,” Leslie said.
By the 1970s and ’80s, when Joell Lee, now 40, was growing up in the 7th Ward, she doesn’t remember seeing any Baby Dolls. Most of the groups were gone by that time.
“It died out,” said Kimble. “But now it’s back.”
Vaz-Deville believes the current revival is just the beginning. “This is still a resurgence in its infancy,” she said.
In coming years, the tradition will likely evolve, as more groups put their individual stamps on it. “What it’s going to be, it’s not yet,” Vaz-Deville said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. It is the Golden Eagles, not the White Eagles.