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The "Baby Dolls"

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

200 pages / 6.12 x 9.25 inches / 37 halftones

ebook available

Cultural Anthropology | Womens Studies | Regional Studies

  Paperback / 9780807150702 / January 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.

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.

Praise for The "Baby Dolls"

“The book is an important scholarly effort for the history of not only women of color but also all women in the Bayou State and beyond. The anecdotal supplemented with the theoretical helps readers to think through complicated notions of the identity performances of these women.”—Journal of Southern History

“Kim Vaz’s engaging and thoroughly researched book is the first in-depth study of one of New Orleans’s least understood Mardi Gras performances. . . . Vaz offers compelling new perspectives on Baby Doll history, the maskers themselves, and their refusal to be defined by cultural stereotypes. Most importantly, she allows us to hear the formerly silenced voices of the women at the heart of the Baby Doll tradition.”—Carolyn Ware, coauthor of Cajun Mardi Gras Masks

“Vaz provides a fascinating glance into the Mardi Gras masking tradition through the lives of those who were most marginalized. . . . Highly recommended.”—Choice

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