WILMINGTON — As Kay Godwin walked through her dressmaking workshop next to her home, her eyes lit up while describing where she found all the fabrics to create 150 antebellum gowns over the last 29 years.
Until recently, Godwin sewed garments for the Cape Fear Garden Club’s Azalea Belle program—a 50-year tradition wherein 11th and 12th-grade girls dress in antebellum hoop skirts and attend various events at the NC Azalea Festival. The belles act as ambassadors of the Cape Fear Garden Club, the City of Wilmington and the festival itself.
In June the garden club decided to eliminate the controversial garb and modernize the program to be diverse and inclusive, according to its new president, and eight-year member, Sherry O’Daniell.
“Because some people view the style of dress as a salute to the antebellum era, we were concerned that inappropriate verbal remarks would be directed at the belles,” O’Daniell said. “It was also always a concern that the belles would be misrepresented on social media.”
Aside from their youth ambassadors’ safety being top-of-mind, the 400-plus garden club members also focused on liability, bad press, their mission and costs as weighing factors toward making a change. Though not an easy decision, the members — not just the board — voted on doing away with the famed Azalea Belle gowns beginning in 2021.
Some members argued over the importance of keeping with “Southern tradition,” according to O’Daniell, while others balked over the glorification of an era remembered primarily for slavery. The community at large also has responded in various ways, including Godwin, who received the call a few months earlier that her gowns would no longer be needed.
Godwin has been making belle dresses since her mother, Augusta Counts, retired in 1991. With the elimination of the ornate gowns, Godwin’s loss equates to $5,000 annually (Azalea Belles, sometimes with the help of the Cape Fear Garden Club, pay around $150 to rent the dresses). However, she isn’t sweating the financial hardship as much as that of preserving her art form and love for making Victorian-style dresses. She pointed to the workshop table, where one of her mother’s books displayed regalia from the 19th century.
“We shouldn’t be erasing history,” Godwin said. “These dresses were just as popular in Europe as they were in the South.”
The Making of an Antebellum Princess
According to Godwin, it takes up to 100 hours to complete one garment from scratch. Racks of embellished dresses, with ruffles, lace, bows and ribbons, are made from prom and wedding gowns that were gifted to her. Others have been crafted from nontraditional fabrics, like yellow eyelet and scalloped curtains that once hung in her mother’s home, or Battenburg lace tablecloths and bed skirts.
In Godwin’s workshop, 40 plastic tubs of textiles and adornments from the last 50 years align the wall, all organized by color.
“Mother bought laces like crazy, especially whenever Cloth World or Piece Goods went out of business,” Godwin said.
Impressively, Godwin can match materials from her vast inventory to dresses that are 30 years or older.
Each dress is named after the first girl who wore it: Kayla, Savannah, Kay I, Kay II. If Godwin’s mother made the dress, it’s distinguished by color—Tomato Red, Turquoise Tier.
Across the entire workshop, pictures are tacked of past belles and celebrities, like a young Drew Barrymore, whom Counts fitted for “Cat’s Eye,” filmed in Wilmington in 1985. Many of the same pictures can be seen in a book Godwin published in January. “50 Years of Azalea Belle Dressmaking” follows a chronological timeline of the garden club’s tradition and the many dresses Godwin created.
The glaring fact is very few Black belles are represented. O’Daniell couldn’t answer how many exactly have been a part of the program throughout five decades. “I’m pretty sure we didn’t ask for race on the application,” she said.
Sonya Patrick, president of Black Lives Matter Wilmington, was born and raised in Wilmington. She can remember the social weight it carried for girls in high school to be accepted as an Azalea Belle.
“However, when I saw a beautiful, Black young teenager in the Azalea Belle gown, that is when reality hit,” Patrick said. “A Black child in those gowns looks exactly like a house slave. The antebellum culture speaks of preserving white Southern culture during a period that Black people were enslaved. Under no condition would I ever want my daughter to participate.”
“It’s really all about fantasy,” remarked Janet Nutley, a friend of Godwin who showed up at the workshop Friday to buy the dressmaker’s book.
“I just love this period of gowns,” Nutley said, “and this lady makes the best. She made one for my daughter when she was 10.”
Nutley doesn’t view the garden club’s choice to eliminate the Azalea Belle gowns fondly. She made it clear her mind doesn’t go to oppression and slavery while looking at the design aesthetic.
“It’s just beauty, it’s fantasy,” Nutley said.
“That’s right,” Godwin agreed.
“I love the architecture and houses from that era, too,” Nutley added.
Nutley’s mother and her daughter were featured in a picture with other antebellum-clad ladies at Orton Plantation in 2010. “I’m so honored to have had my daughter a part of this,” she told Godwin.
Godwin has dressed numerous grandmothers, mothers and daughters in the same gowns, decades apart. She passed Nutley a clipboard with a petition attached to it.
“Here, sign this,” Godwin directed. “We want to get enough signatures to show the garden club we don’t want this tradition to go away.”
The petition also is circulating online, as promoted by former belle Shelly Wilkie.
“It’s just about beauty,” Godwin said of the dresses. “Girls, no matter their size, can get in that hoop and look in the mirror, and she’s a princess. You see it in her eyes—she just glows.”
Modernizing the Garden Club Ambassadors
When the Cape Fear Garden Club started the program in 1969, only seven belles were featured. “Mother got involved after her first cousin’s wife, Louise Blake, chairman of the garden club, came up with the idea,” Godwin said.
The centennial celebration of the Cape Fear Confederate Ball was held prior, and Godwin’s mother made costumes for her and her husband. When the garden club decided to carry forth with the Azalea Belles, they reached out to Counts because of her skill level and knowledge of the era’s fashion.
“Mother made all the dresses for 14 years by herself,” Godwin said.
In 1991, Godwin took over upon her mother’s retirement, alongside local dressmaker Alma Fennell, who helped make the gowns since 1984. Debbie Scheu rounded out the team in 1993. Every January through April, the three ladies have outfitted up to 150 belles, with hoop skirts, capes, gloves, parasols, and sometimes pantaloons.
The garments all take on different styles and textures, yet have one commonality: When worn, the various colors and girth resemble flowers. Annually, Azalea Belles are positioned to greet visitors at garden and home tours, the queen’s coronation at Greenfield Lake, the famed Airlie Garden party, in the parade, and at other festival events.
The gowns, once regarded by many as a quaint picture of Southern charm, recently have become symbols of antagonism, as debates over Confederate flags and statues have gained national interest and momentum. Some former belles have argued the tradition is degrading in how it displays women as merely ornamental.
Godwin pointed to a quote written on a piece of paper in her shop when asked how she would respond to someone who mentioned any of these offenses: “I’m sorry to tell you, but my rights don’t end where your feelings begin.”
For Roberta Penn, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee for New Hanover County NAACP, it’s less about feelings and more about inclusivity of everything the South represents. “Celebrating the history of the American South without the full participation of Black people is like being a ghost at your high-school graduation: You can be there, but no one sees you, and someone else takes credit for the work you did to graduate.”
Penn’s metaphor pinpoints wealthy plantation owners in the antebellum era who depended on slaves to grow their fortunes, build their homes, tend their farms, care for their families, and, yes, mend their wives’ and daughters’ dresses. Ornate ball gowns of that period mostly were afforded to ladies in the upper echelon of society who had Black handmaids.
“The festival is a neocolonial view of the era,” Penn continued. “All the Black people have been removed.”
Patrick concurs the Black community’s participation has been limited in past festivals. Mainly, she only has noticed their inclusion in the parade—in marching bands, on dance teams and representing local organizations, like the Community Boys and Girls Club. And only a handful of past Azalea Queens have been Black.
“The garden club tours were not an attraction if you were Black, unless you were a public official, which we had very few of,” Patrick added.
Two memorable highlights, she said, are when city clerk Penny Sidbury, the first Black organizer, oversaw the festival, and “the year the late Bishop Utley organized a gospel concert during Azalea Festival weekend.”
In recent years, the festival has added more hip-hop and rap performers to its concert lineups. It also utilizes its multicultural stage to represent various ethnic dance and music groups at the street fair.
Penn believes festival committees and offshoot organizations should make a more concerted effort to invite the Black community to fully participate in the planning, staging, presenting and profiting of the festival.
“Let’s come up with something all the people in Wilmington deserve,” Penn added.
“[It] makes the path for a better future of love, unity and respect,” Patrick said. “We can enjoy the beauty of the South without going back to the era before the Civil War, and give Southern pride a new definition of beauty and excellence.”
Under O’Daniell’s direction, the garden club is trying to do just that. It’s added multiple committees this year, including an Edible Committee, focused on creating edible gardens, and a Blue Star Memorial Committee, centered on placing garden markers to salute the nation’s military. The club also is launching a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which is in its early stages of defining goals that serve the club’s priorities of preservation, education and conservation.
The club has plans to plant 1,739 trees in collaboration with Mayor Bill Saffo’s initiative to help with reforestation and canopy growth. It also will continue caring for bird nesting sites; promoting and sowing plants that benefit wildlife; caring for public gardens and planting trees; working in the community at large, including with seniors, youth, city and county officials; devising the annual garden tour; and donating funds back into southeastern N.C. To date, the club has given more than $1.2 million to local organizations and scholarship funds.
“Our motto for this year, ‘Beyond the Garden Gates,’ is meant to inspire us to look beyond our own gardens,” O’Daniell continued. “It is being conscious that what we do in our gardens spreads, no matter how tightly we shut our garden gate that we are connected, and by interconnecting we can create a glorious garden.”
Improving their youth ambassadors’ attire is part of that connection. Though, what it will morph into exactly is still under consideration. O’Daniell said the club will ensure moving forward that the ladies contribute more than merely added beautification to the gardens.
“We [want to] direct the contributions of our ambassadors toward a leadership and knowledge-driven direction,” she said.