Each year in my hometown of Mobile, AL, fifty high school girls are chosen, on merit, to participate in the 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.
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, each one is custom made, costing upwards of $6,000 and weighing over 50 pounds, restrictive both literally and figuratively. To some, Trail is a way to appropriate and reclaim a set of troubling histories about women and race, turning it into something positive for themselves. To others, it’s about camaraderie, and the pride of being chosen for something long accepted at face value as being an honor.
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.