African-American tradition returns to Carnival

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BABY DOLLS–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. The costumes first became part of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras in 1912 with a group of Black prostitutes, but spread within decades into the city’s respectable African-American neighborhoods. (AP Photo/State Library of Louisiana, Collection of the U.S. Works Progress Administration of Louisiana)

 

by Janet McConnaughey

Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The “baby dolls,” an on-again, off-again Mardi Gras tradition of New Orleans’ African-American community, are on again.

The troupes of women strutting and prancing in bonnets, garters, and skimpy or short, ruffled dresses on Fat Tuesday also are being spotlighted in a new book and museum exhibit that trace their history and modern rebirth.

When the predominantly African-American Zulu krewe hits the streets on Fat Tuesday — Feb. 12 — its marchers will include the Baby Doll Ladies, a troupe formed after Hurricane Katrina. They play tambourines and cowbells to accompany their dance, a hip-hop style called bounce.

Though Mardi Gras celebrations date from the city’s French founding in 1718, historians say the baby doll tradition started in 1912 when black prostitutes who worked just outside the legal red-light district called Storyville dressed up on Mardi Gras to outdo their legal rivals.

Storyville was closed in 1917, but the baby doll costumes caught on and survived for decades in African-American neighborhoods.

In the years of segregation, Blacks celebrated Carnival in their neighborhoods with informal parades of the brightly feathered and beaded Mardi Gras Indians, picnics and parties centered around the floats of the Zulu parade and costume traditions such as the baby dolls.

The end of segregation in the 1950s and ’60s — and new economic opportunities — brought new avenues for African-Americans to participate in Mardi Gras. Debutante presentations at gala balls and more traditional float parades sprung up. And the revival of Lundi Gras celebrations the day before Mardi Gras brought together the monarch of the predominantly white Rex krewe to meet with the king of Zulu to toast the coming festival.

As times changed, the baby doll tradition faded.

But not everyone forgot the dolls, or what they meant to Carnival in New Orleans.

One new group — the 504 Eloquent Baby Dolls of New Orleans, named in part for a telephone area code — will march with a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians and the Skull and Bones club, maskers clad as skeletons in another revived Black tradition.

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