Mobile’s Azalea Trail is more than just a dress …
… although it was the stunning, otherworldly dress in this article ( Meet The Maids ) that caught my eye … and sent me tumbling into a pool of memories. You see, this was me. A long, long time ago. In the world of 1969. When I was named to the court of Mobile’s Azalea Trail Maids. I’m humbled to this day by the honor bestowed upon me.
The whole concept of the Azalea Trail started way back in 1929 when a local horticulturist devised a plan to revitalize the city through a beatification project. Since the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta was (and still is) one of the largest intact wetland ecosystems in America, Mr. Lackland thought to take azalea bushes, which thrived in Mobile’s climate, and plant them along well-traveled roads throughout the city. The Jaycees (now the Mobile Junior Chamber of Commerce} liked his idea and the rest, as they say, is history. At one time, the city painted a pink stripe along the original 15-mile route, but this feature was later outlawed because of state laws. Today, the famous route (sans the pink ribbon marker) has expanded to 35-miles as it rambles through the city. In the spring when the flowers bloom in abundance, the sight is truly spectacular!
In the early days, debutantes would dress up in their finest, and act as ambassadors for the city. Between the flowers and the ladies, tourism soared and the Azalea Trail Court was introduced in 1935. Today, it is a continuing tradition that not only promotes the City of Mobile, but offers scholarships, a chance for travel, national exposure, and opportunities for fifty high school seniors to develop poise and confidence as they speak to large crowds on behalf of their community.
The colors of the dresses today are much more vivid than the delicate pastels my friends and I wore way back when, but the gowns are every bit as dramatic and still stunningly beautiful. My mother was a professional seamstress who was in great demand for her Mardi Gras costume designs, so I got to watch the magic happen in my own home. I saw my gorgeous pastel blue antebellum dress come to life day by day.
Mama made everything for me — the overdress, the hooped petticoat that gave the dress its bell-shape, a wide-brimmed garden hat, the prissy parasol, lacy gauntlets (fingerless gloves), satiny cummerbund, frilly pantaloons, a sweeping bow/sash, and even a faux fur-lined cape for those bitter winter days. She even dyed a corset (longline bra), several pairs of tights, and a pair of Mary Jane shoes to match the color of my dress!
I can still recall the excitement of donning that gown. It was like becoming a different person’ and going back hundreds of years in time. And the weight! After a few hours, the heaviness became a burden. Imagine, fully dressed, each girl wore 40-50 pounds of material—sixty yards of organza, fifteen yards of taffeta, ten yards of broadcloth, ten yards of fur, and who knows how much lace, ribbons, netting, and bows.
Back in my day, the Azalea Trail Maids performed at the Junior Miss Pageant, and appeared in the halftime show of the Senior Bowl Game. We made tons of PR appearances at Bellingrath Gardens, and rode in multiple parades along the pink-striped streets. We learned the art of a genteel curtsy, how to wave and smile with genuine feeling, but most of all we learned about the civility of a bygone time, one filled with poise and grace and generosity of spirit. And all this against a backdrop of azaleas, rhododendrons, gardenias, magnolias, tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, violets, and Spanish moss.
This is such an amazing, whimsical memory, one that still brings a smile.