TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Baby Dolls of New Orleans, a century-old tradition revisited

in Ark Weekender/Arts & Culture by

Book on Baby Doll masking, explores the modern resurgence of a woman-powered, Mardi Gras, New Orleans tradition. Its subsequent fundraiser promotes literacy and community in the Crescent City.

Wining, rolling, juking, strolling, parading, twerking — these terms or derivatives of them reverberate from the hips, fishnet stockings and umbrellas of women who dance in neighborhood parades during New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.

They are called the Baby Dolls, a century-old masquerade tradition where women in the community carry out costumed-street processions dressed as antique figurines. Preferring enclaves away from the tourist traps of the city’s festivities, the parades are for local folk merriment.

Many people outside of New Orleans know little of the Baby Dolls. When masking and Mardi Gras pop up, representations of Black Indian tribes donned in brilliant, beaded costumes dominate the images and stories of how African Americans celebrate. However, according to the new edited book, Walking Raddy: the Baby Dolls of New Orleans, the long-line of women paradors, and the recent re-emergence of the Baby Dolls, show that the tradition holds historical significance and present viability.

Walking Raddy edited by Kim Vaz-Deville.

Through 140 color photographs and a collection of essays drawn from interviews, theoretical perspectives, archival material, and historical assessments, Walking Raddy captures one of the first women’s street masking groups in the United States.

For the first time, women participants and the stories they archived from personal experiences, and those inherited from their fore-mothers, are in the book.

For Eve Abrams, an award-winning radio producer, audio documentarian, and educator, the book gathers “the past, way past, and yesterday in threads of female toughness and grace which stitch through race, fashion, freedom, tradition, change, social justice, and the unquenchable desire to define the female self for oneself by oneself.”

Challenging Patriarchy with a Twirl and Twerk

Starting in the early 1900s with Black women who dressed in bloomers, bonnets and other clothes from eighteenth century baby dolls, the Baby Dolls employed Vaudeville performances as they sauntered through the streets to entertain friends and neighbors during Mardi Gras.

Using an intersection of satire, parody and sexuality, the street ritual turned into a staple for many decades. The marchers often pushed public respectability, patriarchy and notions of womanhood. According to Mardi Gras scholar, Kim Vaz-Deville, the form of masquerade, which hints to West African tradition and American carnivalesque, the groups of women who costumed “became social and pleasure clubs.”

Over time, the appearance of the Baby Dolls almost became extinct until 2004 when women organized and began parading again. Walking Raddy, edited by Vaz-Deville, takes an intimate look at how the revamped Baby Doll society with 12 independent groups, presents itself today as a “living art.”

To help continue with preserving the legacy of New Orleans culture, Vaz-Deville teamed with One Book One New Orleans foundation to host a fundraiser for Saturday, June 19, at Xavier University,  for 2 pm. The proceeds go to, One Book One New Orleans, an organization that works to increase literacy and community for adults.

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