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Baby Doll Ladies perform (left) in 2010 in the Zulu krewe parade at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Earlier dolls (right) dance during Mardi Gras in 1931. The tradition dates to 1912 but fell out of favor from about 1962 until its recent revival.
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BY JANET McCONNAUGHEY
NEW ORLEANS--The "baby dolls," an on-again, off-again Mardi Gras tradition of New Orleans' black community, are on again.
The troupes of women strutting and prancing in bonnets, garters and skimpy or short, ruffled dresses on Fat Tuesday also are being spotlighted in a new book and museum exhibit that trace their history and modern rebirth.
When the predominantly black Zulu krewe hits the streets on Fat Tuesday--Feb. 12--marchers will include the Baby Doll Ladies, a troupe formed after Hurricane Katrina. They play tambourines and cowbells to accompany their dance, a hip-hop style called bounce.
Though Mardi Gras celebrations date from the city's French founding in 1718, historians say the baby doll tradition started in 1912 when black prostitutes who worked outside the legal red-light district called Storyville dressed up on Mardi Gras to outdo their legal rivals.
Storyville was closed in 1917, but the baby doll costumes caught on and survived for decades. In the years of segregation, blacks celebrated Carnival in their neighborhoods with informal parades of the feathered and beaded Mardi Gras Indians, picnics and parties centered around floats of the Zulu parade and costume traditions such as the dolls.
The end of segregation in the 1950s and '60s--and new economic opportunities--brought new avenues for blacks to participate in Mardi Gras. Debutante presentations at gala balls and more traditional float parades sprung up.
The baby doll tradition faded. But not everyone forgot the dolls or what they meant to Carnival.
REVIVING A TRADITION
One new group--the 504 Eloquent Baby Dolls of New Orleans, named in part for a telephone area code--will march with a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians and the Skull and Bones club, maskers clad as skeletons in another revived black tradition.
"I've got a wonderful group of women who want to educate our youth, who want to bring our culture back to the streets of New Orleans," said Denise Trepagnier, a heavy crane operator and part-time seamstress who organized the group.
Around New Orleans neighborhoods, you might glimpse other troupes with names like the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, Treme Million Dollar Baby Dolls and Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls.
'MY FIRST GLANCE'