Denise Trepagnier Murph grew up in the Seventh Ward, surrounded by neighbors who masked as Mardi Gras Indians in tribes including the Yellow Pocahontas and Creole Osceolas. She learned to sew bead panels for friends' Indian suits.
"It's absolutely peaceful to pull on a needle and thread," Trempagnier says, sitting in a room in her Algiers home that's filled with four sewing machines, a hemming machine and pieces of a bright pink costume. "It keeps me grounded and happy."
She always made costumes for herself for Fat Tuesday, but it wasn't until her friend Alfred Doucette, a Mardi Gras Indian, put her in touch with Antoinette K-Doe in 2004 that she masked as a baby doll. Baby doll groups date to the era of Storyville, when women who worked in the prostitution district spent Fat Tuesday parading in baby doll costumes. As K-Doe recounted the history of the baby dolls, Murph was hooked.
"Antoinette explained that on Mardi Gras, the baby dolls didn't work their normal trade," Murph says. "They'd pose for pictures with people. The money was donated to a hospital to take care of boys from the Gentilly orphanage."
Not long afterward, women not from Storyville formed baby doll groups.
Murph typically makes a baby doll dress, bloomers, a decorated umbrella, a lacy garter, a baby bonnet brim and a bag, in which she carries a baby bottle filled with spirits. She makes a new outfit every year, and past costumes fill a guest room closet in her home. (She also made a crepe paper baby doll costume for an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum.)
For most of the past dozen years, Murph has paraded on Fat Tuesday with a baby doll group, initially the K-Doe Baby Dolls. Three years ago she was diagnosed with cancer and stopped masking to take care of her health. Now 18 months cancer-free, she has assembled her own group, 504 Eloquent Baby Dolls, which includes five first-time baby dolls. (Murph made a costume and visited friends on Fat Tuesday in 2016, but did not walk with a group.)
Traditionally, Mardi Gras Indian tribes emerge in their neighborhoods early in the morning on Fat Tuesday. In the 6th and 7th wards, baby doll groups and the Northside Skull and Bones Gang also come out early in the morning. Skeleton gangs, featuring members in helmet-like papier-mache skulls, black clothes painted with bones and butcher's aprons, typically start the earliest, playing music and banging on cow bones to wake up others for the Indians. The Northside Gang is currently led by musician Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes.
"[The skeletons] are a literal representation of the shedding of the flesh at Carnival," Barnes says.
He and his Northside Gang made a special visit to the Mother-in Law Lounge to welcome the K-Doe Baby Dolls when they first marched.
On Feb. 27, the Northside Gang will arrive at the Backstreet Cultural Museum (1116 Henriette DeLille St.; www.backstreetmuseum.org) at approximately 6 a.m. to rally before making a trek through Treme and surrounding neighborhoods. Eventually the gang will return to the museum. Murph's baby dolls will emerge at a friend's home on Annette Street. They'll make stops at the Backstreet, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and Bullet's Bar.