BrassyBrown.com talks Mardi Gras and New Orleans Baby Dolls with Dr. Kim Marie Vaz.
For those who don’t know, talk a little about the New Orleans Baby Doll history.
The Baby Dolls had their origins around 1912. The Million Dollar Baby Dolls were women from the Uptown/Battlefield section of the city, the neighborhood of Louis Armstrong. The Baby Dolls were a kind of Carnival Club for women working in the dance-halls and brothels. The practice spread to the black Creole families in the seventh ward and in the Treme area, a section of the city that borders the French Quarter and is located in the sixth ward. Married women in these neighborhoods formed social and pleasure clubs to plan their masking for Carnival. These women generally were mothers of large families. The neighborhood Baby Doll groups were often accompanied by a mock band consisting of the women’s husbands, sons, and other family members as well as friends. Baby Dolls were also uptown. Ms. Linda Green also known as the “Yakamein Lady” recalled her aunt, Nettie Riley, was an Uptown Baby Doll who masked with Big Chief Robert Lee. On Carnival, they gathered at Jackson and Draydes Streets. Nettie was of fair-complexion and married to a man who worked on the riverfront. Nettie was a sharp dresser but also “she wasn’t nothing nice”. Another notable example of an Uptown Baby Doll masker is Mercedes Stevenson, currently, Big Queen of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian gang. She masked with her friends for a couple of years before Chief Landry asked them to join him. Baby Dolls wore short dresses, bonnets, garters, silk stocking or socks, sang ribald songs, danced in sexy and sexual ways, smoked cigars, were know to like good liquor and were interested in having their men close and as the saying goes “maybe having your man too.
How did Jim Crow Laws impact the sex workers industry in New Orleans?
New Orleans has been known as a place where sex across the color line was an entitlement for white men. Middle and upper class white men could be serviced and have their pleasure in Storyville (1897-1917) a district that did not legalize prostitution, but merely segregated the living quarters for women who were sex workers into a few blocks. Women of all race and ethnicities could live in the district, but black and white women could not occupy the same residence. In black Storyville, a few blocks away, black and white working class men enjoyed the leisure of vice activities including the sexual services of black women. Skin color also made life more difficult for darker-skinned women as Craig Foster has written they often had the “lowest prices, had the roughest clientele,” and were often “street walkers doing back alley trade.”
Are there unique differences between the Baby Dolls of old and the current Baby Dolls?
With the ascendancy of the krewe culture after the Civil War (formally organized groups of white male members who held parades and gave balls and formed a social elite) a social ban on women’s masking became customary. But prostitutes had always broken with prohibitions on appearing in public in customs and masked. By the turn of the 20th century, women of all classes began to challenge restricting social norms and took up costuming on the streets; though they often had a whip or walking stick in hand to fend off unwanted advances. What is unique about the masking tradition of the Baby Dolls is that once it started, it continued and grew to encompass women who worked in the sex- industry and those who just wanted to have fun on Carnival being sexy and bawdy making the Baby Dolls one of the first women’s street masking traditions in the United States. The Million Dollar Baby Dolls were a group of women from black Storyville and were engaging in sex work and other acts of “fast living” as musician Danny Barker called it. Costuming has changed over the years and symbols have been added though none of the old symbols have been taken away. Today’s Baby Dolls are not sex workers though they are flaunting female sensuality and feminine prowess. Today they sport in addition to the signature garter, lollipops, pacifiers, baby bottles, umbrellas, and or tambourines.
Recently I was at a cultural discussion where folks were debating old vs. new New Orleans. A Mardi Gras Indian said he felt the current baby dolls were a disgrace. Your thoughts?
Not knowing the context it is hard to answer and since there are many groups now, it is difficult to know which specific group he might be referring to. That is one reason I felt compelled to write the book. The only references I came across were comments from male musicians or other notable New Orleans men. Not informed by a feminist perspective they merely reported on what they saw and their remarks reflect the times they were living in. There are original Baby Dolls beginning around 1912 who were women who worked in black Storyville. For most middle and upper class African Americans, they were a disgrace. There were the Baby Dolls who masked in the 1940s when the practice consisted of a mix of women who were prostitutes and women who were not, but liked to put on the costume and act risqué on Mardi Gras just to have a good time. The women who were just having a good time and masking with their husbands and neighbors were not looked down on in their community, but of course those who were sex workers masking as Baby Dolls continued to excite and scandalize onlookers. Today, none of the groups consist of sex workers and are women from all walks of life, though the origins of the tradition still cast a pall over the practice. Today, there is controversy within the black cultural community about one group that wears white theatric face paint and whether they are staying true to the tradition or has their innovation gone too far. I think it is most important that the women who mask speak for themselves and we can move beyond their representation by others who may not have their best interest at heart.
What are some of the myths about New Orleans Baby Dolls and do they overlap with historic stereotypes about Black women?
The most important myth is that they are Jezebels that can be dismissed as contributing nothing to Carnival masking. The myth of their unimportance prevented any documentation or interest in what this practice was about for 100 years. Consequently, much has been lost and is irretrievable. Another myth is that only women masked as Baby Dolls. Many men who were not gay, put on the short Baby Doll attire and pranced in the street to have a great time on Carnival day.
What challenges did you face as a writer and woman of color to get The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras published?
The greatest challenge I faced was the sheer lack of available information about the lives of working class and poor black women in New Orleans. There was virtually nothing written about the tradition accept three interviews with women who were prostitutes in their youth, were living in 1940 and interviewed under the auspices of the Louisiana Writers Project. The mis-perception that a Baby Doll is only a prostitute still dogs the tradition and women who mask are often asked by their friends and relatives why would they want to mask in this way. In a few unfortunate instances men assumed because of my interest in this topic, I was choosing to align myself with a group of women of easy virtue. I was surprised that some women scholars I believed were feminist questioned why I would study a group of prostitutes. The biggest challenge continues to be the collapsing of male and female prostitutes who masked as Baby Dolls and non-sex workers who masked as Baby Dolls and acted in bawdy, flirty ways on Mardi Gras which is the point of carnival.
Finally, how did the Baby Dolls and women like Dorothy Mae Taylor impact Mardi Gras today?
While the women and men who masked as Baby Dolls did not set out to change Mardi Gras or even challenge its norms, it was through their masking behaviors that they transgressed what was deemed acceptable during their time. These were people who did not like boundaries and barriers imposed by any type of authority. Through their reversals of everyday social norms, they demonstrated the existing structural barriers regarding gender, race, class and sexual identity. Times dictated what women could wear, whether or not they could earn their own income and have control over it, what places of business they could enter, and whether or not they were “respectable”. This type of practice while it is not movement politics or even visual activism, I believe it is a kind of prequel to what issues will become political. Dorothy Mae Taylor, educated, elected and empowered had suffered through discrimination, did not like it and would not stand for it. In 1992, she introduced an ordinance to desegregate Mardi Gras krewes and to force them to open their admissions to all irrespective of gender, race, or sexual orientation in order to obtain a parade permit. She did this because the krewes benefited from tax payer dollars through the use of city services and because she knew those alliances forged among krewe members translated into business deals that excluded the rest of the city’s populace. Though the resulting ordinance was watered down, she is credited with giving voice to the frustrations of New Orleanians who felt injured by the exclusionary practices of the old-line krewes’ members. The landscape of krewe masking was also beginning to change with the introduction of superkrewes whose membership was not restricted by race/ethnicity or gender and the plethora of new krewes who were not interested in social status but used krewe masking as a way of participating in Mardi Gras as their cultural birthright.
Dr. Kim Marie Vaz is the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of education at Xavier University of Louisiana. Her area of research is the use of expressive arts as a response to large-group social trauma.
In the Spring of 2015: Contemporary Artists Respond to the Baby Dolls at the George & Leah McKenna Museum was on view. Check out http://igg.me/at/artaboutbabydolls and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/artaboutbabydolls?ref=hl