Azalea Trail Maids by Adair Rutledge

Issue 109

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 comradery, and the pride of being chosen for something long accepted at face value as being an honor.

Despite being selected for their intelligence, 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.

Adair Rutledge lives and works in Seattle, Washington.
To view more of Adair's work, please visit her website.

 Trail

Trail

 
 Jayuanna, Peach Azalea Trail Maid

Jayuanna, Peach Azalea Trail Maid

 
 Waffle House I

Waffle House I

 
 Waffle House II

Waffle House II

 
 Jayuanna, Costume Change

Jayuanna, Costume Change

 
 Jayuanna, ROTC

Jayuanna, ROTC

 
 Azalea Trail Maids’ Office

Azalea Trail Maids’ Office

 
 Julia, Peach Azalea Trail Maid

Julia, Peach Azalea Trail Maid

 
 Wardrobe Assembly

Wardrobe Assembly

 
 The Curtsey

The Curtsey

 
 Cinched

Cinched

 
 Photo Opp

Photo Opp

 
 Queen Taylor, Pink Azalea Trail Maid

Queen Taylor, Pink Azalea Trail Maid

 
 Taylor’s Dress Room

Taylor’s Dress Room

 
 Queen Taylor and Aunt Nanny

Queen Taylor and Aunt Nanny

 
 Jamie’s iPhone

Jamie’s iPhone

 
 Kaycee, Valedictorian [in the Bouncy Castle]

Kaycee, Valedictorian [in the Bouncy Castle]

 
 Discount Center Gas Pump

Discount Center Gas Pump

 
 Pantaloons

Pantaloons

 
 Antebellum

Antebellum