Exhibit spotlights gaudy celebration of women in Carnival

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Photo by Amy Levin - From left, the late Antoinette K-Doe, Geannie Thomas and Dawn Griffin (in back) mask as Baby Dolls under the Claiborne Avenue overpass in 2005.

At the Presbytere Tuesday through Sunday

Being a Baby Doll is feminine and feminist, satirical and sensuous, cultural and common. Baby Dolls have paraded on New Orleans streets since the early 1900s in various incarnations and have included denizens of the infamous Red Light District from that era, as well as entertainers, businesswomen, students and scholars in today’s society.

But a more recent krewe, the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies, has taken the pure New Orleans marching club concept and infused it with a new-millennium take on a century-old masking custom.

Kim Vaz, a professor at Xavier University, is co-curator of an exhibit, “They Call Me Baby Doll: A Mardi Gras Tradition,” on display at the Louisiana State Museum at the Presbytere. Millisia White, who started the Baby Doll Ladies club in 2005, and Vaz want to share an expansive view of the ritual, not just the bawdy portion.

Baby Dolls are recognized by their porcelain facial art and red lips — a “kewpie doll” visage — short, frilly dresses, garter belts and lacy umbrellas, but White and her krewe also focus on the dance.

When they are on the street on Mardi Gras morning, the Baby Dolls display a mixture of Afro-Caribbean movements that are the center of African-American parade dancing in New Orleans. Their dress and dancing also serve as a gaudy protest to society and patriarchy, which saw black women as third-class citizens and prostitutes.

“(Baby Dolls) confirmed the joy in the community. The joy of being together and being seen and having another say ‘you are all that’ and ‘you look good’ because of the way you are dressed, the way you’re dancing, the attitude that you have. You’re confirmed, you’re affirmed in a community setting,” said Vaz, who masks as a Baby Doll on occasion.

The Baby Dolls offer a defined look at one culture in its totality and what it meant in a conscious way to its participants.

“You don’t have access to the courts, you don’t have access to the media; you have access to your wardrobe and dance. You make a statement through that and say that you’re valued and that’s why it’s so powerful,” Vaz said.

Vaz has written a book, “Baby Dolls” (LSU Press), which gives a 360-degree look at the group’s street tradition and commemorates its centennial. She wanted to take an alternate look at race and gender, especially in New Orleans, where alternative ideology is the norm.

“New Orleans has always created spaces for marginalized people to be empowered and express themselves outside of mainstream institutions,” she said. “It was a way to ‘talk back’ to those who oppressed them.”

Vaz cites the Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs as examples of groups who created their own power structure, but those organizations tended to be predominately male.

Vaz said the women carried themselves on Carnival in a way that said “we are going to be beautiful, we’re going to be Baby Dolls and dance on the street and have a good time and we’re going to affirm that we are present.”

It was a bold move, Vaz said, because when the tradition emerged, women were not allowed to mask or walk unaccompanied by men on the streets during Carnival.

She also noted that most women were not acknowledged or documented around traditions relating to Carnival, and only privileged women were permitted to mask as queens or other social royalty.

White formed the Baby Doll Ladies with her brother, Calvin “DJ Hektik” Dyer, and jazz musician Eddie “Duke” Edwards as a tribute to New Orleans and its unique practices after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Baby Doll Ladies range in age from 18 to 83, according to one member.

Vaz was drawn into the club and began doing research, which led to the book, when she attended a fundraiser for the Baby Doll Ladies chaired by White. Vaz said she was amazed by the passion and desire to maintain the ritual. She also was surprised to learn that black men joined women in masking as Baby Dolls before integration.

White and Vaz met with the Friends of the Cabildo, who agreed that celebrating the Baby Dolls was in line with their mission and the museum’s plans to have a major exhibit about Mardi Gras. Vaz wanted to ensure that the exhibit was accompanied by a scholarly work to honor the women involved and dispel myths about the tradition.

Karen Celestan is a writer, cultural administrator and educator living in New Orleans. She can reached at Karen@mosaicliterary.com.