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The Dress Hasn't Changed, But The Girls Have

They marched in President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration parade.

They appeared at processions ranging from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and Disney’s Easter Parade in Orlando, Fla., to the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

They are the Azalea Trail Maids — the embodiment of old school Southern hospitality with a modern twist.

Photographer Adair Rutledge, a native of Mobile, Ala., returned to her hometown to learn more about how some girls are redefining what it means to be a symbol of the South — while they wear a 50-pound, custom-made antebellum dress.

To be one of the 50 Azalea Trail Maids, you have to be chosen — and only those with impressive resumes get the honor. The girls Rutledge profiled were valedictorians, National Merit Scholarship winners and even in ROTC. And the interview process is extensive. “A lot of them take classes and rehearse for years,” Rutledge says.

The selective process and preparation is meant to prepare them to be ambassadors for their town — a modern version of the Southern belle.

Once chosen, they represent Mobile for a year. When wearing the dresses, which can cost up to $6,000, they usually don’t speak; their duty is to smile, wave and have their photo taken.

Rutledge hopes her project will help people work through what seem like contradictions: very accomplished women wearing Southern plantation-era gowns while representing Alabama’s third-largest city.

“There’s sort of a disconnect between what the dress represents historically and these multicultural, highly accomplished modern young women who wear it now,” she says. “They’re not exact replicas, but they are modeled after the attire of the white Southern plantation-era elite, which means that they are the gowns that were once worn by the wives of slave owners. … I really want people to be asking these questions around gender and identity and race and the tensions that are created from being a young Southern black woman wearing an antebellum hoop skirt.”

But it is also important to see each Trail Maid as their own person, Rutledge says.

“With this project I looked at not just the tradition, but the girls that operate within the tradition and who they are as individuals,” she added, giving the example of one Trail Maid who switches from wearing the dress to putting on an ROTC uniform on a daily basis. And just like how the tradition has changed throughout time, so has the meaning of the dress.

One of the biggest changes to the Trail Maids over the past 50 years is the group welcoming different races. Rutledge says there are no official records of when the first black girl was part of the Azalea Trail Maids, but from conversations she’s had with older generations and looking at photos, she guesses it was around the 1970s.

Some of the black Trail Maids explained to Rutledge how they changed the narrative and took back a tradition that was once off limits to them.

“I tried out for Trail for all the little black girls who wanted a dress like that, but they were slaves and they couldn’t have one,” Kaycee Tate, valedictorian of her high school graduating class, told Rutledge. “If you were to tell a little black girl who was picking cotton, you know back in the day, ‘Hey, in a few hundred years maybe you’ll get to wear a dress like that too,’ no one would believe you. So I’m kind of a testament to times have changed.”

Jamie Lim, a Korean American who was previously a Trail Maid, wrote her college essay on wanting to be part of the organization because she hadn’t seen many who looked like her represented in the group.

Rutledge stressed that through the tensions, for all the girls, this custom is about friendship and camaraderie. Her photos show this — from a picture of a few girls taking a selfie to one of a group hanging out at Waffle House.

And she isn’t finished with this project yet. While most of the girls went off to college, she is still in touch with some of them and plans to photograph them when they are home in May to see where they are now. She hopes the end result of this project will be a multimedia piece where individuals can hear the girls’ voices behind the images.

“I wanted to be sure that I was showing this blend of empathy and also a sense of humor and beauty and color, but at the same time, calling into question some of the cultural forces that have placed them where they are.”

But ultimately, Rutledge wants her project to foster a discussion of how tradition plays out in the modern world.

“There are just all these tensions that are fighting each other, like between the modern woman and the sort of antiquated tradition that manifests itself in the big dress,” says Rutledge, currently based in Seattle, later adding: “I hope the work encourages people to ask bigger questions about gender and race, particularly in the context of our national conversations on issues like the #MeToo movement and removal of Civil War monuments.”

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