The ‘Baby Dolls’ of New Orleans: Gender, Race, and Self-Creation

By Grace Gipson | Black Perspectives

“Is the unruly woman masker still relevant?” This question posed by Xavier University dean and professor Kim Vaz-Deville speaks to the determined nature of Black women who have always created unique performative avenues of expression that rewrite conventional narratives. Thus, it is no surprise that a community of women exists who “created a collective identity and [when residents] put on a costume that reflected their sense of themselves.” Known as “Baby Dolls” due to their personality and child-like attire of short dresses, bloomers, and bonnets, along with their pacifiers and bottles, this group emerged in the early 1900s, during the height of Jim Crow. Dissatisfied with the dismissive treatment they encountered based on their race and gender, the Baby Dolls became formidable voices in their community. The origins of the Baby Dolls have been debated, with some claiming they began in the ‘red-light’ district of New Orleans and others claiming they were the creation of Sixth and Seventh Ward Afro-Creole families like the Batiste’s (Golden Slipper/Dirty Dozen-Baby Dolls) and the Phillips’ (Gold Digger-Baby Dolls). Regardless of their uncertain origins, the Baby Dolls have made an impact worth recognizing and this recognition comes in the form of the anthology titled, Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi).

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