"They’re not wearing the dress anymore… it’s a new thing now."
June 29, 2020 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Every year Mobile, Alabama chooses fifty high school girls, on merit, to join the nearly 100-year-old court of Azalea Trail Maids as town ambassadors. Adair Freeman Rutledge explores the contradictions of her hometown's tradition by photographing these racially diverse 21st century teenagers wearing antebellum dresses in order to “embody the ideals of Southern Hospitality” and as a proud family tradition. All links go to the photographer's site.
posted by spamandkimchi (23 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
True fact: my first girlfriend in college was from the Mobile area, and had been a trail maid in high school.

It was creepy 30 years ago.
posted by uberchet at 9:16 AM on June 29 [2 favorites]


Do these dresses have a historical basis in anything? Like, is there some historian telling them what's actually antebellum?

Because they look like an explosion in a ribbon factory, without artistry or texture. I mean, if you had asked me to create a parody of 19th Century southern gowns, an over-the-top parody to the point of ridiculousness, I would produce photos like this.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 9:22 AM on June 29 [19 favorites]


As Jayuanna, a Peach Trail Maid and JrROTC cadet admits, once selected, “we’re pretty much eye candy… glorified eye candy.”

What a waste of potential. Mobile has these intelligent, accomplished young women who are willing to be spokespeople for their town, and the city tells them to smile and stay quiet. I hope their time works as a resumé builder to open more opportunities.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:25 AM on June 29 [10 favorites]


Yeah, those dresses are more Old Hollywood than authentic Old South.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:30 AM on June 29 [4 favorites]


From the photographs and write up it doesn't seem to me like these women are having much trouble reconciling this dress up exercise with the rest of their lives. As a cosplay-adjacent human I'd say it's not that shocking that it's possible to do so, and hand-wringing over taste and historical authenticity might be missing the point.

It seems like a tall order to wrest this tradition away from the frankly awful history it represents, but I'm going to give this group the benefit of the doubt and wish them luck. It looks like they might have had some fun in the attempt, and if you haven't tried wearing enough tulle to choke an elephant, maybe give it a try before you knock it.
posted by q*ben at 9:40 AM on June 29 [22 favorites]


if you had asked me to create a parody of 19th Century southern gowns, an over-the-top parody to the point of ridiculousness, I would produce photos like this.

The main thing these remind me of is Cake Wrecks.
posted by Foosnark at 9:58 AM on June 29 [3 favorites]


Recognizing that the dresses represent fantasy rather than history isn’t necessarily “knocking” anything.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:08 AM on June 29 [5 favorites]


And I say that as a theatrical costumer who has created plenty of fantasy in her time.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:09 AM on June 29 [2 favorites]


It seems to me the most historically accurate place for hoop skirts is on the tank of a toilet.
posted by TedW at 10:28 AM on June 29 [5 favorites]


Using advances in fiber and dye technology to make extremely colorful frilly dresses is deeply Victorian. So is the rise of the Professional Beauty judged by appearance more than parentage. These dresses aren’t a reproduction of 1850s material culture but they are a continuation of it. A culture not (just) a costume, in fact.
posted by clew at 10:29 AM on June 29 [11 favorites]


When it comes to teenagers in hoopskirts, the truth is that not everyone can have dresses as good as Las Marthas.
posted by thivaia at 10:55 AM on June 29 [4 favorites]


The Falleras might, in a somewhat different style - their lace looks superb. (Also an intensely local festival performed by locals with wide global roots.)
posted by clew at 11:26 AM on June 29


I think revising the fashions of the 1850s and 1860s south into a contemporary fantasy fits right in with the fantasy revisionism that permeates the glorification of pre-emancipation culture.

See: the revisionism of erecting confederate statues for a then-contemporary 1920s daughters-of-the-confederacy-fantasy and the fantasy of reviving and revising a flag to represent some kind of pan-southern white culture, except the flag was a war banner used by one military division, not the whole army, and was never a national flag of the confederacy.

You could point to the Azalea Trail Court's inception in 1949 as a moment where full-skirted fashions were very contemporary, so a full-skirted look for the Trail Queen might be conveniently excused as simply what debutantes were wearing then anyway, were it not for the unfortunate, intentional nods to specific mid 19th-century design elements.

If a vibe of the historical is called for (setting aside the incongruities of selecting highly intelligent and accomplished young women for their intelligence and accomplishments, so that they can model a dress and not talk very much) Mobile was founded in 1702 so the possible historical references for costume choices from the Mobile's past could range from long-waisted, stiffly boned mantuas of the early 18th century to fully panniered later 18th century gowns, high-waisted empire lines of the late 1790s-1820s, the huge-sleeved 1830s, etc. The visual lines of dress from the final years of the slaveholding south are a deliberate (lost-cause-referencing) symbol that goes way beyond "historicism"
posted by zingiberene at 11:28 AM on June 29 [10 favorites]


like, the aesthetic and the relationship to the literal garments they reference aren't in and of themselves something to be justifiably sneered at by an outsider, but they don't mean nothing
posted by zingiberene at 11:32 AM on June 29 [1 favorite]


Mobile has these intelligent, accomplished young women who are willing to be spokespeople for their town, and the city tells them to smile and stay quiet.

Somehow this doesn't shock me.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:24 PM on June 29 [3 favorites]


>Mobile was founded in 1702 so the possible historical references for costume choices from the Mobile's past could range from long-waisted, stiffly boned mantuas

Once someone points an interesting little fact out, like this one, it does make you wonder.

It seems like it would actually be more fun and more authentic, and more inclusive of the area's entire history, and just plain more interesting to choose a different decade between say 1702 and 1952 every year and based your costumes on that.

It would be cool and interesting to dress up in 1920s fashions, or 1890s, and certainly 1720s or 1790s, every once in a while.

And yeah it could still be the 21st Century media-fueled princess-ified fantasy version of each historical fashion, because why not?

But why the focus on just one little 20-year period out of the past 300+ years? When it would be more attractive and interesting in many ways to focus on the full sweep of history.

It kind of does put the whole "20 years immediately prior to the Civil War" fetish in a different light.

(Not even to mention the centuries and millennia of history and civilization prior to 1702--but that's getting into a little different kettle of fish.)
posted by flug at 12:25 PM on June 29 [11 favorites]


>(Not even to mention the centuries and millennia of history and civilization prior to 1702--but that's getting into a little different kettle of fish.)

yes, a potent example of how any discussion of US History will eventually and unavoidably need to reckon with settler-colonialism
posted by zingiberene at 2:06 PM on June 29 [3 favorites]


Recognizing that the dresses represent fantasy rather than history isn’t necessarily “knocking” anything.
Sorry for the implication, TUM, I completely agree with you here. I think the direction this "tradition" has gone has the opportunity to be, ironically, more empowering than picking a different historical period for inspiration. If you were to get a group of young people together and said you'd like to celebrate their success and standing in their community by allowing them to pick an outlandish costume to exemplify their ideals and those of their community, I doubt you'd have much of them reaching back to specific historical periods as part of their selection. Fashion, out of the arts, has a deep history of appropriation, reclamation, and reinterpretation.

I'm less than enthusiastic about the claimed goal to "embody the ideals of Southern Hospitality" but I don't think for most of these women that's really what dressing in a day-glo tulle pyramid is really all about.
posted by q*ben at 4:01 PM on June 29 [3 favorites]


Suddenly I'm reminded of that one episode of Firefly.
posted by amtho at 6:00 PM on June 29 [6 favorites]


The costumes remind me of the Cypress Gardens Belles.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:58 PM on June 29


The costumes remind me of the Cypress Gardens Belles.

I already hate them for disabling right-click on their page.
posted by Harald74 at 4:22 AM on June 30 [1 favorite]


I read The Pluto Gangsta's comment before clicking on the article, thinking that they were probably obsessing about the exact materials of the buttons or something nitpicky like that, but holy mackerel! The colours! The lace!
posted by Harald74 at 5:39 AM on June 30


The dresses remind me of these

No offense to the Trail Maids.
posted by domino at 6:46 AM on June 30


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