As part of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, a new krewe called the baby dolls was formed in 1912. The baby dolls were a group of black prostitutes who worked in an area outside the legal red-light district called (black) Storyville. They would dress up on Mardi Gras to out-do the red-light district workers. Their name was said to originate from the nickname already given to the women by their pimps: baby dolls.
The style of the baby doll in the Mardi Gras celebration was tight or skimpy clothing, some adorned with money and cigars, throwing it at the observing men. Their instruments included the washboard, the kazoo, the guitar, and a big No. 3 tub for the bass drum. Throughout the years, the women expanded their group, collecting dues and possibly becoming the first women’s organization in the Mardi Gras celebration. Their styles then varied, even being dressed as actual babies, or baby dolls, depending on the group.
As debutante balls took over and the traditions of Mardi Gras changed, the baby dolls faded for decades. However, after Hurricane Katrina, a new group honoring the women called the 504 Eloquent Baby Dolls of New Orleans formed. This is the newest group of baby dolls, as others in existence include the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, the Treme Million Dollar Baby Dolls and the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls.
While the tradition started with local prostitutes of the Storyville area, the new groups of baby dolls urge to bring back cultural tradition and entertainment on Fat Tuesday. The groups are comprised of women from different professions, including a professional dance troupe.
The culture behind the baby dolls groups is explained through an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum. In addition, Kim Marie Vaz, Associate Dean at Xavier University in New Orleans has released “The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition.” Their history is also told in the book “Gumbo Ya-Ya” (1947).