Sunday, February 22, 2015

Azalea Trail Maids

I have just now gotten around to reading this fun book, "Never Sit Down in a Hoop Skirt," by Crickett Rumley...Hoop skirts, magnolias, and etiquette!

The book is based on the Azalea Trail Maids...Southern Belles who represent the city of Mobile, Alabama.  The author spent her high school years in Mobile, but was never an Azalea Trail Maid herself; however, her friends were.  She journeyed back to Mobile and interviewed present day and former Trail Maids for her book.

The book features seventeen-year-old Jane Fontaine Ventouras, who is returning to her Southern roots in the small town of Bienville, Alabama, where ladies always wear pearls, sip sweet tea, and serve pimiento cheese sandwiches.  Jane is an anti-belle, Goth-girl and her Grandmother got her into the "Magnolia Maid brigade."   The book chronicles her reluctance to become a Magnolia Maid and follow the tradition set out by her deceased mother. 
Crickett Rumley autographs her book .

Azalea Trail Maids wear prissy hoop gowns with frilly hats, monogrammed gauntlets, and parasols.  The Trail Maids are the city's symbol of hospitality.  They greet visitors at the Mobile airport and conventions and also travel around the country representing Mobile.

The Trail Maids at the Macy's Day Parade.

The frilly pantaloons worn under the dresses.

How are Azalea Trail Maids chosen?

Each year, hundreds of high school juniors in Mobile County, Alabama, try out for the opportunity to represent the city as a Trail Maid. Each high school has the first level of competition, from which 100 candidates are chosen to try out at countywide interviews. Ultimately, 50 girls are chosen to represent the city of Mobile, Alabama, as ambassadors. The program is overseen by the Jaycees organization.

What happens once the selection is made?

Once the Maids are chosen, the next step is to create each girl's costume. The colors are baby maize, petal peach, baby blue, light orchid, light aqua and the queen wears a baby pink dress. During the application process, each girl submits her three top dress color choices to the Jaycees, who ultimately make the decision about which color each Maid wears.
Each girl secures a dressmaker to construct her attire. Since there are 50 Maids, 10 girls will wear each of the five colors. One of the girls is named Azalea Trail Queen at a reception in early December, and her dress will be pink. A few days after the queen is announced, the fabric will be distributed and the dressmaking process begins.

About Azalea Trail Maids Dresses

I found this interview with Susan Finizola, a professional dressmaker who has created a number of the costumes:

What are the distinguishing characteristics of the Azalea Trail costumes?

These dresses are a representation of antebellum style but are not intended to be authentic. They are sewn from polyester fabric and poly/satin ribbon. Many people say the Maids conjure up an image of a Southern garden party in the spring 100 years ago.
There are specific guidelines for the dresses. For example, the bottom edge of the finished dress must be four inches off the floor. Additionally, ruffles on the edge of the hat, the edge of the parasol and the ruffle around the shoulders are mandatory. Monogramming is limited to certain spots, while embroidery embellishments may be on most areas of the attire.

How much fabric and lace is used to make the costumes?

ruffled azalea trail dress
The base supplies the Jaycees order for the construction of each outfit consists of dress fabric, steel for the hoop, fur, a wire frame for the hat, a parasol frame and a dress bag. Dress fabric includes 75 yards of organza and 15 yards of taffeta dyed specifically for the Mobile Azalea Trail. The fabric is dyed in Japan and distributed through Berenstein Textiles of New York. When the Maids are dressed the only visible fabric on the dress, hat, parasol and gauntlets is the organza and taffeta.  Ten yards of cotton broadcloth is used for the hoop. The cape is lined with one and a half yards of fur. The Pantaloon fabric is where the personality of each Maid shines. This fabric is purchased by each Maid here in Mobile or by mail order.
In addition to the over 100 yards of fabric that goes into each costume, the dressmaker uses thousands of yards of thread and between 300 and 1,500 yards of ribbon. I also use at least 400 yards of fishing line in the edge of the ruffles. Other supplies include hooks and eyes, zippers, buttons, elastic, interfacing, and many other sewing notions.
Some Maids request lace on their dresses. Usually the amount of lace is about half the amount of ribbon used on the same style of dress.

What do the dresses cost?

Some dressmakers make traditional dresses only, while others are known for being avant garde. In my experience, the complete attire the Maid wears can cost between $3,000 and $6,000. On rare occasions a Maid's relative will construct the attire for free or at a lower price. This can decrease the price to as low as $1,500.

How did you get started making Azalea Trail costumes?

I was involved with the Azalea Trail Organization from 1995 to 1999. In 1999, at the encouragement of a good friend, I began making Azalea Trail dresses. It was a natural progression since I have been sewing and designing for the past 35 years. I also make many other types of dresses and costumes, including Mardi Gras dresses and christening gowns.

What do you enjoy the most about making these dresses?

Azalea Trail Dress Detailing
For me, the creativity is the most enjoyable part of making these dresses. I can make a beautiful traditional Azalea Trail dress and have done so in the past. However, I prefer the avant garde style of Trail Dress. I was one of the first (if not the first) to use covered buttons on the costume. Each girl decides independently on her theme. If a Trail Maid has an unconventional idea I will work with her to incorporate it into the dress in a tasteful way. This year two of the five dresses I constructed have seashell motifs. There were other dressmakers who would not let their girls use seashells, but not me.
Each Maid gets so excited about her dress, and that is the second most enjoyable aspect of making these dresses.

I adore these dresses and the entire costume and have worn similar (but not near as fancy) gowns when I was a teenager.  So how in the world does one get around and sit down in a hoop skirt?  The hoops are usually flexible and you can press them to pass through a doorway.  Sitting down on an armchair is not going to happen though. You need to sit on chair without armrests and sit on the edge of the seat, lifting up the back a few inches before being seated. 


Lisa Bolling said...

I just love the Azalea Trail Maids. What a wonderful, Southern tradition!!
Also, I must get Cricket Rumley's book.
As always, thank you for such a lovely post.

Seersucker Sass said...

I love this post! Great to see how different Southern cities celebrate :)

XX, SS || A Little Seersucker Sass

Kari said...

Makes me feel like there is hope for the future.

NikkiL said...

I'm ordering the book now. I love our southern traditions. Glad to see another one continuing.

Unknown said...

This is so enlightening! I have heard of this tradition before (maybe at a parade on TV?). But I did not know much about it! I wonder if Rachel knows the link to Jaycee's name and the Trail Maids? How fun! I always enjoy your posts!

Metro Magnolia

Miss Janice said...

They are adorable!

Miss Janice said...

The Deep South traditions are wonderful!

Miss Janice said...

Amen Kari!

Miss Janice said...

Hope you enjoy!

Miss Janice said...

For sure Jaycee needs a frilly bonnet!

Miss Jane said...

I'd heard of the Trail Maids before on another blog but not the book. I finished reading it last week, it was quite entertaining.
Thanks for sharing another lovely southern tradition with your readers.


Miss Janice said...

Thank you Miss Jane!