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The Frilled Bonnet of Oppression
January 13, 2009 9:33 AM   Subscribe

A throwback to slavery? The Azalea Trail Maids began as a celebration of horticulture in Mobile, AL in 1929, and right now they're scrambling to raise funds so they can stroll in Obama's inagural procession. The President of Alabama 's NAACP, however, is determined to see that they stay home.
posted by Julia F***ing Sugarbaker (81 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think he'd have more of an argument if he opposed them on purely aesthetic grounds.
$3000 - $6000 for one of those monstrosities?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:39 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know about racism or slavery, but the NAACP guy certainly has it right when he says they'll be the laughing stocks of the inaugural procession. I'm sure it would be possible to come up with sillier outfits, but I'm having trouble thinking of what they'd look like.
posted by craichead at 9:40 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I like the Trail Maids' gallery page, though. They should keep it like that.
posted by craichead at 9:42 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


The poofy dress hides the tank treads on the killer southern belle robot.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:42 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Considering that the Capitol and the White House were built by slaves, I think his point rings a little hollow.
posted by hermitosis at 9:45 AM on January 13, 2009


This guy is an idiot.
posted by desjardins at 9:48 AM on January 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


They look like peeps left out in the rain. Can't say I care one way or the other. At least they can wear warm pantsuits under the skirts.
posted by lysdexic at 9:49 AM on January 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Whoa, Julia Sugarbaker posts here?!

Anyway, "reminds me of slavery" seems a little weak. The Confederate Flag is a symbol of slavery but big poofy dresses? What about cotton balls?
posted by DU at 9:51 AM on January 13, 2009


I'm sure that as I watch the parade I'm going to be overwhelmed and confused. And then the trail maids will walk by and I'll be relieved to know that I'm on acid. I mean, how the hell did we get here? Oh right, someone spiked my drink.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:51 AM on January 13, 2009


Yeah, the dresses are silly, but obviously some kind of tradition in Mobile. Just because the dresses look like something from Gone With The Wind, which were just period costumes that probably could have been worn by northern rich women as well, doesn't make them racist. I would guess that back in 1929 when this started they were almost certainly all-white, as it was the segregated deep south, they aren't any more. They seem to be reasonably diverse. That indicates to me that this is about Mobile and not racism, at least now.

The NAACP guy is an idiot.
posted by lordrunningclam at 10:00 AM on January 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Agreed, fluffy dresses of the sort could as well be an homage to Disney characters as to the slavery in the south which made such dresses possible. Now if they were being followed by three generations of manacled servants and a whip-wielding farm-master, that would remind me of slavery.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:03 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


so they had slavery in 1929?
posted by pyramid termite at 10:08 AM on January 13, 2009


Agreed, fluffy dresses of the sort could as well be an homage to Disney characters as to the slavery in the south which made such dresses possible.
They could be, but I'm pretty sure they aren't. They were clearly created as an homage to the "good old days," and there's a reason that when white people in Mobile think about the "good old days," they think about the antebellum period. I think the NAACP guy has a point, and I think it's pretty tasteless to send women in those costumes, regardless of their race, to march in any inaugural parade. It's probably more tasteless than usual to have them march in this one. I just can't work up a lot of outrage over it, because it seems fairly trivial and because it's hard to take anyone dressed like that seriously.
posted by craichead at 10:10 AM on January 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Actually, I think it would be a great step forward if we could make gigantic pastel poufy dresses the symbol of the Confederacy instead of the Confederate battle flag. Imagine rednecks with poufy-dress tattoos, and poufy-dress stickers on their beat-up Ford Broncos.
posted by adamrice at 10:12 AM on January 13, 2009 [16 favorites]


Black people remind me of slavery.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:14 AM on January 13, 2009 [10 favorites]


The NAACP dude has something of a point, but he really needs to pick his battles better. This one? Not worth arguing about.
posted by orange swan at 10:14 AM on January 13, 2009


They forgot the curtain rods.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:18 AM on January 13, 2009 [9 favorites]


They were clearly created as an homage to the "good old days," and there's a reason that when white people in Mobile think about the "good old days," they think about the antebellum period.

I don't want to be One Of Those Deliberately Obtuse White Guys, but is this actually how poofy dresses are understood in the South? I mean, we also think of Greek and Roman times as "the good old days" but the "reason" isn't because of the slavery or subjugation of women. Those are unpleasant parts of an interesting history.

If the dresses are a covert signal among enthusiasts that indicate which part of the Good Ol Days you are talking about, then sure, ban them in the parade. If they are just a part of a cultural heritage that also happens to include slavery, then not.

In the North, I think those dresses make us think of Gone With The Wind with a slight halo out to "planation" but not as far as "slavery".
posted by DU at 10:20 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think those dresses are amazing and I want one. I mean, I wouldn't wear it to work or to my wedding, but for a parade they are perfection. Look at that textured sherbet wave! The people up thread criticizing these must have gone to business school, work in homogenous grey cubicles in squat boxes, devote their lives to tidy columns of numbers, subsist on uniform "flavored" protein bars, and dream in black & white. People like you make the world efficient but soulless and dull. The NAACP guy is right there alongside you, with no joy, delight, or (ironically) color in his life.
I can dig allen.spaulding's acid comment though
posted by Hal Mumkin at 10:24 AM on January 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


"These are not just regular costumes. These are the costumes that remind someone of the plantation in Gone with the Wind," Edward Vaughn said in a phone interview.

A valid critique. Along the same lines, I don't believe Edward Vaughn should be allowed to represent the Alabama NAACP because he reminds me of the retarded guy from "Flowers for Algernon".
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:27 AM on January 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


I mean, we also think of Greek and Roman times as "the good old days"

INAUGURATION TOGA PARTY!

Warm-up kegger at Delta Tau Chi house.
posted by GuyZero at 10:27 AM on January 13, 2009


Also, the NAACP should stick to managing collegiate athletic tournaments.
posted by GuyZero at 10:28 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm in the same camp as orange swan. On one hand, reminiscing about The Good Old Days can be pretty creepy if those days involved being subjugated and forced to work in the fields, but on the other hand, you've got to pick your battles. Not every aspect of southern culture from 1600-Present = slavery. A lot, sure, but this is pretty tenuous.
posted by electroboy at 10:31 AM on January 13, 2009


I believe the missing curtain rods are here, at right about 3:30.
posted by ourobouros at 10:33 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


The NAACP guy is right there alongside you, with no joy, delight, or (ironically) color in his life.

The confederate battle flag is quite colorful too. Full of festive stars and such. Knock yourself out with that.
posted by electroboy at 10:33 AM on January 13, 2009


Wait. What? Kaylee is a racist? Wow, that changes everything...
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:33 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


At least one of these young ladies appears to be African-American.
posted by jim in austin at 10:34 AM on January 13, 2009


i call bullshit - this style of dress was very common in the 19th century and not exclusive to the south

do not get your history from hollywood movies

They forgot the curtain rods.

how could they?
posted by pyramid termite at 10:35 AM on January 13, 2009


But the 'reminds me of slavery' comment is quite ironic, given that the Trail Maids wear individually-designed, hand-made dresses.

Considering most people today wear factory-produced, foreign-made garments, which usually involves sweatshop or child labor practices or abusive/exploitative treatment of mostly female, always poor, usually ethnic minority workers, perhaps Mr. NAACP needs to drop his plantation imagery and catch up to the realities of 21st-century slavery. It didn't end with Gone With The Wind.
posted by grounded at 10:35 AM on January 13, 2009 [14 favorites]


At least one of these young ladies appears to be African-American.

Actually, according to the news stories, 22% of the Maids are members of ethnic minorities.
posted by hermitosis at 10:37 AM on January 13, 2009


I hope there aren't any German-American groups in the parade. They'd Godwin the whole thing.
posted by desjardins at 10:40 AM on January 13, 2009


Actually, according to the news stories, 22% of the Maids are members of ethnic minorities.

Yeah, and in particular the percentage of African Americans maids is actually slightly higher then the percentage of African Americans in the population at large.
posted by Jezztek at 10:44 AM on January 13, 2009


In the North, I think those dresses make us think of Gone With The Wind with a slight halo out to "planation" but not as far as "slavery".

You, uh, do know that Gone With the Wind is about slave owners, right?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:45 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


At least one of these young ladies appears to be African-American.

You may want to be careful arguing from "some of these dresses' best friends are black". Think of Alan Keyes. Or think of KKK hoods. You can't really argue that, since your kids sometimes run around with a pillowcase or bedsheet pretending to be a ghost that those hoods aren't racist.

I think the best approach is to ask what the dresses mean. "I have uncovered a photograph of someone of Northern roots wearing one" doesn't mean they aren't racist. But "a lot of people in the South wore them" doesn't mean they ARE racist. When someone from the South (or the North, for that matter) looks at those dresses, do they think "now THAT'S what I'm talking about! we need to bring back slavery!" Or do they just think "oh look, old-timey dresses"?
posted by DU at 10:46 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure that I think of Greek or Roman times as the Good Old Days. Do you seriously?

Look, I think that in the South, hoop skirts and whatnot evoke antebellum plantations. Southern dirt farmers didn't dress like that: those were the clothes of wealthy women who didn't have to work. Slavery wasn't incidental to antebellum plantations, although some white Southerners like to pretend that it was. Slavery was the bedrock on which the entire system depended. The descendants of those slaves are still around, and they're still conscious of being the descendants of slaves. One of them is about to become our First Lady. This isn't ancient history, and it certainly wasn't ancient history to the early 20th century people who decided to have the Trail Maids dress like that.
The people up thread criticizing these must have gone to business school, work in homogenous grey cubicles in squat boxes, devote their lives to tidy columns of numbers, subsist on uniform "flavored" protein bars, and dream in black & white.
I went to grad school in U.S. history, work at my messy desk at home, devote my days to reading old newspapers, just had a salami and cheese sandwich for lunch, and don't remember my dreams. Also, I like to knit Latvian mittens. Dressing like a pastel cream puff still seems goofy to me.
posted by craichead at 10:49 AM on January 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


You, uh, do know that Gone With the Wind is about slave owners, right?

Define "about".
posted by DU at 10:50 AM on January 13, 2009


You may want to be careful arguing from "some of these dresses' best friends are black"

I'm not arguing anything. I was just making an observation. I found a site with more than you ever wanted to know about the Mobile Azalea Trail Maids. Apparently they do get around a bit:

The girls have appeared at such honored events as the Fourth of July Parade in Atlanta, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, the Christmas Parade in Chicago, the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia, the Presidential Inauguration Parade for George W. Bush in Washington, D.C. and the Easter Parade in Walt Disney World.
posted by jim in austin at 10:52 AM on January 13, 2009


I think the best approach is to ask what the dresses mean.

they mean that the ladies of mobile don't care to go around in their underwear
posted by pyramid termite at 10:56 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think those dresses are amazing and I want one. I mean, I wouldn't wear it to work or to my wedding, but for a parade they are perfection.

You have this backwards. They should ONLY be worn at work.
posted by The Whelk at 10:56 AM on January 13, 2009


I like them. As a matter of fact I'm wearing one right now.

*sips mint julep*
posted by jonmc at 10:56 AM on January 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


These costumes are no stupider than the Mummers costumes. Drunken steamfitters dressed in ostrich feathers could crush these hoop skirt wearin' bitches like a grape.
posted by fixedgear at 10:57 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


When someone from the South (or the North, for that matter) looks at those dresses, do they think "now THAT'S what I'm talking about! we need to bring back slavery!"

I don't think it's usually that explicit (although sometimes it is, and that's really fucking scary). Seems like this is more the "when people were polite, men had well groomed moustaches like Rhett Butler and you could buy things for a nickel" sort of reminiscing. The problem with that, is that while some people were enjoying mint juleps on the veranda, others were not nearly so lucky.
posted by electroboy at 11:04 AM on January 13, 2009


You, uh, do know that Gone With the Wind is about slave owners, right?

So is 1776, and we don't associate wearing silly powdered wigs with slavery.

But yeah I agree that the south's tendency to embrace the antebellum period is not very good for current race relations. As other people have said, these kinds of dresses are not as symbolic of slavery as say, a confederate flag, but there is still an association for a lot of people. Whether or not that association is harmful enough that they shouldn't be allowed to participate is debatable.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:05 AM on January 13, 2009


but is this actually how poofy dresses are understood in the South?

Hi. Native Mobilian here, replete with a brother in KA an an ex-girlfriend who was a Trail Maid. This line from Faulkner bears repeating:

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Poofy dresses, "Old South" parties, and even Mardi Gras all contribute to the unspoken order of things in Mobile; which is to say that the rich, white families reign from behind the scenes while unwanted segments of society - usually black and poor, but oftentimes white and poor - are relegated to the fringes of society. You can see a rather literal version of this in the municipality of Prichard, a swath of land in between the metropolitan area of Mobile and the exurbs of Eight Mile and Saraland that is continually marginalized by their neighboring cities.

As for the Trail Maids themselves, they're nice girls - nice *rich* girls. Being able to afford a $6000 dress, plus travel costs for appearances, plus having at least one parent/sibling that's available to take off work to help you into and out of the dress... well, this isn't really in the realm of a Horatio Alger story, is it?
posted by squorch at 11:07 AM on January 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


While dressing up in a Confederate uniform could indeed be an attempt to draw focus back to the Civil War era, wearing simulated variations on early Victorian period costumes harkens back to a period when slavery happened to coincidentally be occuring in some parts of the world where such costumery was in vogue. If you are reminded of slavery because of this, you should also object to Jackson on the $20 bill on the same grounds.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:14 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lol sucks to be an Azalea Trail Maid. All this time you thought you were just participating in a light hearted cultural tradition, turns out you were actually a vector for the unspeakable evil that was Southern white america. SURPRISE.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 11:17 AM on January 13, 2009


... which is to say that the rich, white families reign from behind the scenes while unwanted segments of society - usually black and poor, but oftentimes white and poor - are relegated to the fringes of society.

Wait. What does NOT say that?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:18 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one who read 'Trail Maids' and thought of muddy boots, flannel shirts, and big frame backpacks?
posted by echo target at 11:19 AM on January 13, 2009


Maybe big poofy dresses remind some people of a racist and segregated past that we need to leave behind. But that's how I feel about the phrase "colored people," and I'm not about to protest Edward Vaughn's travels. Some things linger into a new era.

When we're done dealing with active, ongoing racism and worldwide slavery, maybe I'll take the time to think through my position on poofy dresses.

On second thought...no.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:21 AM on January 13, 2009


That idiot makes his whole race look bad. By that I mean the human race.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:21 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's going to be tough to walk in a parade with a gigantic roll of toilet paper under those dresses.
posted by PenDevil at 11:24 AM on January 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ah, semiotics, how I hate you.

The problem with symbols is that they don't actually carry any meaning other than what the viewers ascribe to it. We need look no further than the U.S. flag to understand this. To some, it is a symbol of all that is right and good. To others, of all that is evil and immoral.

Getting the two sides to agree on the meaning of that particular symbol is pointless. The beliefs are deeply ingrained and there's kind of no compromise. The best you can hope for is to make sure that you use the symbol appropriately. So, trot out the U.S. flag at events that celebrate U.S. patriotism, but maybe leave them folded in the closest if you're attending the "we love Al Quada" rally (unless you're bringing them with the intention of burning them).

To the NAACP gentlemen, these dresses serve as a symbol of slavery. To the ladies in question, these dresses serve as a symbol of a kind of elegance that has been relegated to the past.

Maybe, however, there's a larger symbol at work that the NAACP gentleman should consider, and that is this: what does is mean for people dressed in a symbol of slavery to be marching in celebration of a black man being elected president? Can't this be seen as a sign of a certain segment of the U.S.A. repudiating the history of slavery - almost as if the former masters are saying "we were wrong and we're glad you were right?"

Or, perhaps, it is a symbol of the various folks from the slavery era who opposed slavery, but dressed like the rest of the folks in that time, celebrating a victory that they share?

I think the NAACP gentleman's reading the dresses as a symbol of slavery isn't any more correct or incorrect than anyone else's ascription of meaning to a symbol. However, I also think that these dresses being at that inaugeration parade have a larger, perhaps more profound meaning than these dresses by themselves.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:24 AM on January 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Wow, squorch. That's an interesting perspective, and a good point. I guess if they were going to be a bigger part of the inauguration, like delivering the benediction or something, I'd think it was in poor taste. Like, if the ENTIRE PROCESSION was made up of azalean ballgowns, or even half of it.

Ultimately though, they're just a tiny footnote in the day's events. It's probably a bigger deal to them to get to march than it will be for anyone who sees them. They're just grown up girls playing Barbie, and presumably they too (or at least some of them) are excited to have Obama in office, or they wouldn't come at all. If this story was about the Trail Maids SHUNNING the inauguration because Obama was president, we'd have something to latch onto here.

Basically, I feel this whole thing is on par with Wiccans protesting that we should all live in tents because houses are symbolically linked with crushing witches.
posted by hermitosis at 11:26 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


So, we have a bunch of antebellum-glorifying young ladies marching in a parade to honor the first African-American U.S. President. There may be some irony here, but it's of the best kind, dontchathink?
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 11:42 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Personally, I think the dresses are silly and the group itself is harmless. But I can totally see where offense could be taken. In the generations following the Civil War, elite white women worked diligently to rebrand the Antebellum period and "white"wash the war and the motivations behind the war. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and other ladies memorial societies not only created monuments to the Confederate cause, but actively sought to promote a history that not only painted slaveholders in the best possible light but also worked to remind everyone that life was better when the right white folks were in charge. The UDC wasn't just about reminding everyone that white folks should be in charge and black folks should not, but they were also very influential in maintaining the strong divisions in class and social standing that were essential during the war. And to be honest, I think they were quite successful. Growing up in the South, it just understood by most whites (regardless of how they feel about slavery and race) that things were just better before the war. Not that we'd ever want to bring back slavery, but a time where everybody was nice and respectful and lived in pretty mansions and the help were polite and invisible.

So no, the poufy dresses aren't really about slavery, they just represent a time and a social status that benefited greatly from slavery, when the right rich white folks were in charge and everyone, white and black, was properly deferential to them. And that may not be the ideal message to subtly send at the swearing in of the nation's first Black president.
posted by teleri025 at 11:44 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mobile is something of a world unto its own - Hyperstratified, almost openly oligarchical, sometimes blatantly racist (the last man to be lynched in the US was done so there, see also MAMGA vs. MCA)... but at the same time you get the sense that Mobile has so much potential to be a shining example of the modern, Southern city that it has an oddly attractive power over you.

Plus any city that celebrates Joe Cain Day can't be all bad...
The Civil War brought revelry in Mobile to an abrupt halt. Joseph Stillwell Cain, on Fat Tuesday of 1866, donned full Chickasaw Indian regalia, dubbed himself Chief Slacabamorinico. Cain and six friends set out to raise the morale of citizens in the defeated city. Dubbing themselves the "Tea Drinkers", and fired up by drink much stronger than tea, they took to the streets in a decorated coal wagon pulled by a mule.
posted by squorch at 12:07 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


If they parade without a dress on this would be a non-issue.
posted by monospace at 12:17 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


jim in austin wrote "The girls have appeared at such honored events as [...] the Presidential Inauguration Parade for George W. Bush in Washington, D.C."

So what? We already knew that Bush hates black people.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:21 PM on January 13, 2009


they're nice girls - nice *rich* girls

I admit to having only one data point, once removed, but my husband's cousin was a trail maid and her family is most decidedly not rich (mother, public school teacher; father, independent insurance adjuster), nor is the rest of the extended family, many of which are Methodist minsters.

For the record, I think the dresses are hideous. She was real jazzed about it, though. It is apparently a big deal in Mobile to be picked.
posted by elfgirl at 12:33 PM on January 13, 2009


Overthinking a plantation of beans.
posted by ColdChef at 12:35 PM on January 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm a southern woman. I like dresses. At times, I even like poofy dresses (though frankly, I think the trail maids could be a bit more creative in their interpretation of mid 19th century costume--I mean those dresses are pretty ugly. They look like they were made for a 1975 high school drama department production of "Raintree County: The Musical." I mean, if you are going to do mid-19th century costume, you might at least look to the source). The hoop skirt was fashionable throughout the western world in the middle of 19th century. If you had the money and/or inclination to wear one said little about your views on slavery and more to do with whether you were following Paris, London and New York Ladies Journals, and checking to see what trend-setters like Empress Eugenie & Queen Victoria (pre-mourning) were wearing. As a feminist, I could probably argue for a good long time about the weak and negative ideas those dresses reflected about that period's women in general. But an argument for another time and one I'm in no place to make given the the number of high heeled shoes in my closet.

I had family on both sides of the Civil War. When I look at period photographs of those women, I can't tell what side they were on due to what they're wearing. I'm pretty sure Mary Todd Lincoln wore crinolines, after all. It's pretty shortsighted to associate the entire costume history of a period with one place and ultimately sort of a slippery slope. Do we ban Puritan costumes from Thanksgiving parades for fear of offending the Wiccans? Should period Shakespearean drama take place in large communities of Native Americans? I'm sure the wives of Nazis wore haute couture in the 1930s, so does that mean German women should never wear vintage Chanel? And this could go on.

If a bunch of debutantes from Alabama want to wear hoopskirts to the inauguration, that's their fashion tragedy, but not something I feel compelled to get righteously angry about. However, in the spirit of compromise, I'd suggest that perhaps Rick Warren be compelled to wear a hoop skirt to the inauguration. Perhaps something in mauve.
posted by thivaia at 12:41 PM on January 13, 2009 [9 favorites]


I miss Julian Bond.
posted by Rykey at 12:42 PM on January 13, 2009


Those dresses put me in mind of those dress cakes with the naked Barbie dolls in the middle that little girls sometimes have at their birthday parties.
posted by FunkyHelix at 12:53 PM on January 13, 2009


You guys are missing the point - they don't WANT to be historically accurate. They want, a la Andrew Clark, to wear the required uniform.
posted by squorch at 12:57 PM on January 13, 2009


I think that the NAACP member's complaint boils down to his perception regarding what AFRICAN-AMERICAN people think of when they see girls in that type garb.

So, for any of y'all on this thread, what is YOUR gut reaction to the antebellum dress? Do you associate it with slavery? Do you associate it with a longing for white supremacy? Do you associate it with sheer tackiness? Or is it a non issue?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:01 PM on January 13, 2009


Those dresses put me in mind of those dress cakes with the naked Barbie dolls in the middle that little girls sometimes have at their birthday parties.

Oh, I had one of those! She was byoooo-tuh-ful....
posted by Evangeline at 1:05 PM on January 13, 2009


It's pretty shortsighted to associate the entire costume history of a period with one place and ultimately sort of a slippery slope. Do we ban Puritan costumes from Thanksgiving parades for fear of offending the Wiccans?

I agree with your overall argument that the style of dress is not specific to Southern slave owners, and I personally don't make that association. But the problem is there is no way to control what people see as symbols for other things, or to agree on what's offensive to everyone and what isn't.

These sorts of things always tend to work on a case-by-case basis and there are no easy answers. It's not very helpful to say "People aren't offended by that, so they really shouldn't be offended by this," because people can and will get offended by whatever happens to offend them. All we can do is ask ourselves "Does this offend a lot of people? Do we care if it does? If so, what can we do to be less offensive to those people?"
posted by burnmp3s at 1:17 PM on January 13, 2009


St. Alia of the Bunnies Yes, I associate that sort of costume with slavery. That's purely an uneducated gut reaction spawned from watching movies, Buggs Bunny cartoons, etc.

As for the NAACP's complaint, I think its pretty silly. A group that wanted to march carrying the Southern Swastika would be obviously racist, the dresses I only object to on the basis of gut reaction. And a person shouldn't think with their gut.

However racism and its phantoms is not entirely a matter of reason. Recall that just a few months ago AriZona teas changed the label on their Sweet Tea because of complaints that the label was racist, or at least racially insensitive. Note that the women depicted on that label are dressed pretty much exactly the same way the Trail Maids.

So, yeah, on a pure knee jerk, gut reaction, level I think the costumes reflect a yearning for the "old south", which was characterized by slavery. Obviously the young black woman in the yellow dress would not agree with that sentiment. Or possibly she does, but wants the social glamor of being part of the Trail Maids regardless.

The Southern Swastika is, I think, sufficiently blatant that there can be no question that its display is a matter of racism, or at least a yearning for slavery. The Trail Maids do give me racist squick, but I argue that there's sufficient question as to its actual intent (which is not the case with the Southern Swastika) that the complaint is not really valid.
posted by sotonohito at 1:22 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


These costumes are no stupider than the Mummers costumes.

*Bursts into tears, runs out of the thread, feathers flopping*
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:23 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, these dresses were a widely popular style in a certain period, but no one else is nostalgic for this particular period. Why is that?
posted by electroboy at 1:27 PM on January 13, 2009


I think people need to extend their historical analysis a bit. The question isn't just about that period in American history and the kinds of people who wore the dresses. We also need to think about the serious efforts that many in this part of the Country waged for generations to reify and glamorize that period and the kinds of values they were fighting for when doing so. This is why the comparison to Puritans makes little sense to me. Had there been a serious, multi-generation effort by those in power to oppress others by those who kept talking about how great Puritan times were, an effort that included dressing up like Miles Standish, then I'd understand. And I'd think that such a group was as stupid as these people. I mean, one of the reasons we don't think of 1776 like that is that the DAR, problematic as they were/are, didn't go around dressing up in colonial garb while fighting for continued racial privilege (they managed to be racist just fine, sans costume).

So I think of this as a kind of beautiful karma. Those who've fought the hardest for "heritage" have tainted it the most. It didn't have to be this way and we could have seen "Southern heritage" in the same way we do the Puritans, had not some of the most vile and despicable parts of American society clung to it and insisted upon its lasting supremacy. Hell, perhaps even the Confederate Flag could have survived without this taint had not those who hated Blacks the most fought for it the hardest. Instead of salvaging this legacy, it's been forever tainted.

Whether this is worth fighting is another question. Pick your battles, etc. But I don't disagree with the NAACP here. Context counts and for generations, people fighting for a certain view of Southern Heritage have completely undermined their long-term goals by continuing to associate these symbols with racial hatred.
posted by allen.spaulding at 1:49 PM on January 13, 2009


A lot of people are nostalgic for that period. There are Civil War Recreationists, for example, and Western states that celebrate some form of "pioneer days" (many of which incorporate the history of African-Americans that fled from the South and began life anew in the West.

Where I grew up, we had "Lost Dutchman Days" festivals, honoring the unique local history of our town's gold trade, and the legends that accompanied the history. No one really got upset that the time we were celebrating actually marked a period when Native Americans were driven out of the area so that the pioneers could have greater access to the gold in the Superstition Mountains, but then again, "celebrating" didn't mean in this case that we were reveling in that aspect of the past; if anything, it just meant it was a time to look back as a community and reflect on what life must have been like then. Dressing as a cowboy, a saloon-girl in ostrich-feathers, or a prospector was just a way to indicate participation in this ritual, it didn't constitute a blanket-acceptance of the atrocities committed, nor did it seek to trivialize them. Those atrocities were explored seriously in more appropriate settings, such as in school.

I totally understand if the sight of these women really does upset certain people, and if there was a large, vocal movement to put them out of sight, I'd probably join it. But what I see here is one person trying to rain on a bunch of other people's parade (literally), mere days before the event. To me, THAT'S in poor taste. This is the kind of thing that would be really easily influenced by a grassroots campaign; using one's title as a platform to tell people what they ought to think and how they ought to feel just seems like lazy activism to me.
posted by hermitosis at 1:56 PM on January 13, 2009


The difference between antebellum clothing and Victorian clothing is that I don't have any reason to suspect that Victoriana enthusiasts either quietly or not so quietly long for a return to consumption, sexual puritanism, and British Imperialism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:51 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think that the NAACP member's complaint boils down to his perception regarding what AFRICAN-AMERICAN people think of when they see girls in that type garb.

I know. Why don't we just ask what Real Americans think?
posted by stet at 5:31 PM on January 13, 2009



so they had slavery in 1929?

I don't know. Did they?
posted by notreally at 5:35 PM on January 13, 2009


Easy Solution for the NAACP: Hire Gettysburg actors to play General Sherman and his 1st Alabama Cavalry Regimen. Reenact his march to the sea.
posted by terranova at 6:49 PM on January 13, 2009


Well, our nation's done all manner of stupid and evil shit over the past half a century, especially in the past eight years. I'm sure many people in other parts of the world have started to look at the American flag and think, You know, it could probably use something like Sherman's march throughout its entire territory. (Then they'd ask you what the distinction is with The South.) It's amazing the nation has anything to celebrate whatsoever in DC, given the sad state of affairs there and all that has gone down since 2000. And if this girls in this dubious, hopelessly retrograde outfit in Mobile want to participate in that celebration, then what they hell? More the merrier. At least we're not celebrating the idea of going out and slaughtering and torturing brown people on dubious, probably illegal grounds overseas again or something.
posted by raysmj at 7:42 PM on January 13, 2009


squorch: I'm not from Mobile but spent a good bit of time doing social science field work there a few years ago, for my own graduate work and as part of a team for a federally sponsored youth survey. I spent no small amount this time in the suburban municipality of Prichard and the northern, more predominantly black sections of Mobile--more than I spent in the older part of the city, really, on the whole.

Consequently, I find the labeling of Prichard as a product of slavery and the Civil War as slightly misleading. You'd have to be a fool or a complete racist to say that black residents of Prichard, and the Mobile area as a whole (which, like its fellow colonial port city of New Orleans, has poor black people living in virtually every section, and little pockets of poverty everywhere, in places hidden and not) were not affected by that history and don't continue to be affected by racism.

However, Prichard was once more evenly divided as far as its racial makeup went, and was a thriving shopping area until the late 1960s, at least. What changed it was the combination of a soft housing market (via the opening of another, larger mall in Mobile) hitting at the same time as the end of de jure racial desegregation via the Civil Rights Act. Blacks moved into the area at cheaper prices, and whites moved out en masse, taking the existing connections to the larger economic base of the metro area with them. In this respect, it has more in common with the "inner ring suburbs" nationwide that are the focus of much modern urban policy and poverty research. This is not to say that parts of Prichard are not really shocking to see, in a Tobacco Road-ish way.

It's also worth pointing out that the overwhelmingly majority white suburb to its east, Chickasaw, is hardly a bedroom community of Mobile elites. It had a per capita income in 2000 of $14,190, compared to Prichard's $10,626 and $21,612 for Mobile proper.
posted by raysmj at 8:18 PM on January 13, 2009


> they're nice girls - nice *rich* girls

Ah'm bettin' they win.
posted by jfuller at 8:40 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Politics be darned, pretty girls who look like flowers are nothing to sniff at.
posted by Scram at 6:19 AM on January 15, 2009


So did the frilly troupe do its thing? Did people laugh at Alabama? Was Obama offended? Curious minds wish to know!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:38 PM on January 23, 2009


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