One of the first women's organizations to "mask" in a Mardi Gras parade, the "Million Dollar Baby Dolls" redefined the New Orleans carnival tradition. Tracing their origins from Storyville brothels and dance halls to their re-emergence in post-Katrina New Orleans, author Kim Vaz uncovers the fascinating history of the "raddy-walking, shake-dancing, cigar-smoking, money-flinging" ladies that strutted their way into a predominantly male establishment.
The Baby Dolls formed around 1912 as an organization for African American women who used their profits from working in New Orleans's red-light district to compete with other black women in their profession on Mardi Gras. Part of this competition involved the tradition of masking in which carnival groups create a collective identity through costuming. Their baby doll costumesshort satin dresses, stockings with garters, and bonnetsset against their bold and provocative public behavior not only exploited stereotypes but also empowered and made visible an otherwise marginalized demographic of women.
In addition to their subversive presence at Mardi Gras, the Baby Dolls helped shape the sound of jazz in the city. The Baby Dolls often worked in and patronized dance halls and honky-tonks, where they introduced new dance steps and challenged house musicians to keep up the beat. The entrepreneurial Baby Dolls also sponsored dances with live jazz bands, effectively underwriting the advancement of an art form now inseparable from New Orleans's identity.
Over time, the Baby Doll's members diverged as different neighborhoods adopted the tradition. Groups such as the Golden Slipper Club, the Gold Diggers, the Rosebud Social and Pleasure Club, and the Satin Sinners stirred the creative imagination of middle-class 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 of photos, articles, and interviews to conclude with the birth of contemporary groups such as the modern day Antoinette K-Doe's Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls, the New Orleans Society of Dance's Baby Doll Ladies, and the Tremé Million Dollar Baby Dolls. Her book celebrates these organizations' crucial contribution to Louisiana's cultural history.
About the Author
Table of Contents
Prelude: On Being an Example of Hope Millisia White xiii
Foreword: Black Storyville Keith Weldon Medley xvii
Introduction: A New Orleans Mardi Gras Masking Tradition 1
1 Gender, Race, and Masking in the Age of Jim Crow 7
2 Women Dancing the Jazz 28
3 "Oh You Beautiful Doll": The Baby Doll as a National Sex Symbol in the Progressive Era 46
4 A New Group of Baby Dolls Hits the Streets 78
5 "We Are No Generation": Resurrecting the Central Role of Dance to the Creation of New Orleans Music 100
A A History of Baby Doll Masking in the Baby Dolls' Own Words 127
B Some Known Million Dollar Baby Doll Participants 142
C The Geographical Landscape of the Million Dollar Baby Doll 143
D Million Dollar Baby Doll Slang 144
E Charting the History of Baby Doll Groups 146