African-American tradition returns to Carnival

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“I’ve got a wonderful group of women who want to educate our youth, who want to bring our culture back to the streets of New Orleans,” said Denise Trepagnier, a heavy crane operator and part-time seamstress who organized the group.

Around New Orleans neighborhoods, you might catch a glimpse of other baby doll troupes with names like the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, the Treme Million Dollar Baby Dolls and the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls.

Trepagnier is planning a route for her group. But, unlike the float parades, many baby dolls go where the mood takes them.

Like Trepagnier, dancer and choreographer Millisia White had education as a goal when her New Orleans Society of Dance began performing as the Baby Doll Ladies in 2009. She said she first saw baby dolls as a child in the 1980s.

“That was my first glance of a woman out in the street, expressing herself independent of the men. That was exciting to me,” she said.

Those baby dolls were likely the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, the first group in the revival.

Trepagnier said she remembers seeing baby dolls until about 1962. After that, “they seemed to have disappeared. I didn’t see any for a long time,” she said.

The return of baby dolls is like the comeback of Mardi Gras Indian tribes, which started as raucous groups in black neighborhoods and now are a celebrated part of the Carnival season, said Wayne Phillips, the Louisiana State Museum’s curator of costumes and textiles.

An exhibit about the origins of baby doll masking and the new groups reviving the tradition has just opened at the Louisiana State Museum. And the LSU Press has just released “The ‘Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition” by Kim Marie Vaz, associate dean at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Beatrice Hill, a founder of the original baby doll troupes, gave an account of their birth published in the 1947 book on Louisiana folklore, “Gumbo Ya-Ya.”

Hill told Robert McKinney, a researcher for the Depression-era Louisiana Writers project, that uptown prostitutes got word their downtown counterparts planned to dress and parade on Mardi Gras in 1912.

In Hill’s account, the uptowners met at 3 a.m. one morning in 1912 to plot strategy against their rivals.

One jumped up, Hill reported, and said, “Let’s be Baby Dolls. That’s what the pimps always call us.”

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