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Who are the New Orleans baby dolls?

Posted on July 19 2019

The Baby Dolls  tradition dates back to 1912, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in the South. It all started in New Orleans' red-light district, which itself was divided along racial lines. The Storyville area, where the sex industry was legal, was for white customers; black customers had to go a few blocks away where prostitution was illegal, but allowed. "[It was] another manifestation of how Jim Crow worked to disenfranchise black people, even in the most sordid of industries. Between these two red-light districts, there was a kind of rivalry. One year the women in the black district heard that their counterparts in Storyville were going to dress up for Mardi Gras; they decided they needed to come up with some good costumes to compete. And they said, 'Let's just be baby dolls because that's what the men call us. They call us baby dolls, and let's be red hot,' Calling a woman "baby" had just made its way into the popular lexicon, with songs like "Pretty Baby" written by New Orleans native Tony Jackson. There was, however, something subversive about black sex workers dressing this way. At that time, baby dolls were very rare and very hard to get, "So it had all that double meaning in it because African-American women weren't considered precious and doll-like." Just the fact that these prostitutes were masking and going out into the street at all was a big deal. Women just did not do that then. And as sex workers, these women were already taboo. so they just kept piling on by appropriating males behaviors like smoking cigars and flinging money at the men. They came up with their own dance step they called "walking raddy." Pretty soon, women in more "respectable" neighborhoods started masking baby doll. But desegregation in the 1950s allowed black New Orleanians to do more on Mardi Gras. Then Interstate Highway 10 was built directly through the neighborhood where African-Americans gathered to celebrate carnival, disrupting many traditions. The baby dolls faded, until several years ago.

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