“Coming Out the Door”: Baby Dolls and Triumphal Entry on Mardi Gras Day
Historically, women of African descent were pressed to labor erotically, industrially, and reproductively without recognizing any benefits or gains for their strenuous efforts. However, during Carnival, enslaved women could re-possess themselves. Robbed of their cultures of origin, they connected through re-invention using the carnivalesque. During fetes, they turned authoritarian norms upside down. Time away from the everyday world, combined with engagements in fashion, dance, and music, offered the opportunity for self-making and critiquing societal standards dangerous to do in ordinary life. In New Orleans around 1910, the Baby Doll carnival masking practice was created and continues. Women (and, in the past, men) wear Victorian-era short dresses, bonnets, bloomers, and garter belts. They accessorize with batons, feather dusters, or umbrellas to prance through the city for fun and to meet up with other themed Black maskers such as the “Indians” and the “Skull and Bones.”
Before appearing on the public streets on Mardi Gras, Baby Dolls gather in homes or lounges, to pray and toast, before “coming out the door.” This presentation asserts that crossing the threshold between the interior and exterior allows that which was done in the dark to women during enslavement and segregation to now come into the light for critical exploration through the body. Each Baby Doll masker makes a triumphal entry wearing costume finery while performing an improvised dance. Each Baby Doll becomes the center of attention. At the same time, unique choreography reflects attire, makeup, accessories, facial expressions, hips, legs, and arms moving rhythmically to music of a live brass band. On Mardi Gras day, the carnivalesque provides the opportunity for cultural rule-breaking and creative confrontation of oppressive forces for women of African descent through a historical, transnational journey from Africa to New Orleans that is re-lived in carnival time.
Kim Vaz-Deville is professor of education at Xavier University of Louisiana. Her book, The ‘Baby Dolls’: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition (Louisiana State University Press, 2013), was the basis for “They Call Me Baby Doll: A Mardi Gras Tradition” an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in 2013. The Baby Dolls was selected as the One Book One New Orleans 2016 choice for a community campaign for literacy. Her anthology Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, 2018) further explores the tradition.