NPR presented this story today, it is a must read for all those who enjoy the Mardi Gras tradition of New Orleans.
…”The baby dolls are a group of African-American men and women [who are] carnival maskers,” says Kim Vaz, dean at Xavier University. “They would dress up on Mardi Gras day in short satin skirts, with bloomers, and they would have garters.”
Vaz, who has written a new book about the baby dolls, says the tradition dates back to 1912, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in the South. It all started in New Orleans’ red-light district, which itself was divided along racial lines. The Storyville area, where the sex industry was legal, was for white customers; black customers had to go a few blocks away where prostitution was illegal, but allowed.
This 1942 photo provided by the Louisiana State Museum shows Gold Digger Baby Dolls, one of the neighborhood groups that adopted the “baby doll” costumes.
State Library of Louisiana/AP
“[It was] another manifestation of how Jim Crow worked to disenfranchise black people, even in the most sordid of industries,” Vaz says.
Between these two red-light districts, there was a kind of rivalry. One year the women in the black district heard that their counterparts in Storyville were going to dress up for Mardi Gras; they decided they needed to come up with some good costumes to compete.
“And they said, ‘Let’s just be baby dolls because that’s what the men call us. They call us baby dolls, and let’s be red hot,’ ” Vaz says.
Calling a woman “baby” had just made its way into the popular lexicon, with songs like “Pretty Baby” written by New Orleans native Tony Jackson. There was, however, something subversive about black sex workers dressing this way….