For decades, the Baby Dolls were among the more enduring mysteries of New Orleans' African-American Carnival celebration. Women dressed in vintage baby bonnets and short, frilly skirts showing off their legs and strutting their stuff were fixtures in Zulu parades for ages, but by the 1960s they began to fade away, possibly due to emerging concerns about negative stereotypes. By then, few recalled their history or cared. In recent decades, the Baby Dolls experienced a modest revival that became more robust after Hurricane Katrina, but it took a new book, The "Baby Dolls": Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, by Kim Marie Vaz — and this subsequent Presbytere exhibition of images, costumes and memorabilia — to finally put it all in perspective.
In Vaz's telling, the Baby Dolls were pioneering feminists. The first such group, the Million Dollar Baby Dolls, were not only the first all-female Mardi Gras marching society, they also played by their own rules. Founded in 1912 by black sex workers at the unofficial Uptown red-light zone in response to a Carnival celebration at the then-legal Storyville district, they reportedly decided to call themselves "baby dolls" because that's what their pimps called them, and their little girl costumes were more revealing than anything women dared to wear on the streets at the time. Proud of their prowess, they even tossed dollar bills as throws.
As some of the older depictions made clear, the early Baby Dolls could be a raucous lot compared to their modern counterparts, even as their baby costumes cast their bawdy shenanigans in high relief. Their influence was such that they eventually spawned many "respectable" copycat groups, and in the oldest known photograph, a circa 1932 procession (pictured), there is no way to tell if they were sex workers or imitators. As with so much of this city's history, the lack of available historical documentation only underscores the depth of the underlying mysteries. — D. Eric Bookhardt