Azalea Trail Maids
Each year in my hometown of Mobile, AL, fifty high school girls are chosen, on merit, to participate in the nearly 100-year-old court of Azalea Trail Maids. Clad in signature antebellum dresses, their coveted role is to act as ambassadors for the town by greeting dignitaries, making appearances at civic events, and “embodying the ideals of Southern Hospitality.”
Only the brightest young women are selected to be Trail Maids. They undergo an extensive interview process for which many have taken classes and rehearsed for years in advance. In addition to excelling academically, their resumes include extracurricular activities ranging from after-school jobs, to class president, to ROTC. Once the dress is on, however, they generally don’t speak, except to answer simple questions about the history of Mobile. Their primary job is to smile and wave.
There is a disconnect between what the dress represents historically and the multidimensional, multicultural, highly accomplished young women who wear it now. Modeled after the attire of the white, Southern Plantation-era elite, the costumes are seen by the girls as more of a beautiful “princess” dress than a representation of one of the South's darkest eras. Each one is custom-made, costing upwards of $6,000 and weighing over 50 pounds – restrictive both literally and figuratively. The only clear marker of individuality is hidden under four layers of ruffles, where each girl’s interchangeable pantaloon pockets are personally embroidered with inspirational quotes and special tributes to loved ones. When wearing the costume, the girls are expected to fulfill the role of the traditional Southern Belle, smiling at official Appearances and supporting their other Trail sisters. It also means adhering to a strict list of rules that forbids wearing only the pantaloons in public, jewelry other than pearls, sitting, or bringing boyfriends to events.
These women are clearly empowered in their own individual lives, taking on leadership positions within their schools and excelling academically, with many catching the eye of Ivy League colleges. However, against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, removing Civil War monuments, and empowering women and people of color, the restrictions of performing as a Trail Maid could appear to reduce them to an antiquated role. As Jayuanna, a Peach Trail Maid and JrROTC cadet admits, once selected, “we’re pretty much eye candy… glorified eye candy.”
The gown, the anchor of this tradition, holds a complicated relationship to modernity. In my conversations with the girls, the historical symbolism of the dress and what that means to them was often an open question. To some, it’s about the comradery of the group, and the pride of being selected for something long accepted at face value as being an honor. To others, wearing the dress is a way to appropriate and reclaim a set of histories about women and race that are troubling, turning it into something positive for themselves. As Taylor, an African American Trail Maid, says, “Now I have the dress. That’s what I like to tell people. They’re not wearing the dress anymore… it’s a new thing now.”
Despite being selected for their intelligence and budding leadership skills, this diverse group of bright, modern young women wear their gowns in smiling silence — an alluring but complicated reflection of national conversations on gender and race today.