If I were not in the process of beginning a comprehensive book on fashion in the “Wild West” from about 1850 – 1910, it is possible I might not be as disgusted with the pathetically ignorant remarks made by Edward Vaughn, the head of the Alabama NAACP.
Evidently Mr. Vaughn finds the flamboyant costume of the Mobile Azalea Trail Maids to be offensive. It reminds him of slavery. He feels the young women, who will be representing Alabama in the upcoming Inaugural Parade, will be an embarrassment and a laughingstock.
THE AZALEA TRAIL MAIDS
The Mobile Azalea Trail Maids are “goodwill” ambassadors for the city of Mobile, Alabama. From what I gather each girl designs her own dress, which must in some way resemble more an “azalea” than an actual “hoop skirt”. The dresses take over 100 yards of fabric and weigh a good 35 pounds. The average dress costs upward of $3000. There are 50 girls in the group, representing all races. Until Vaughn’s remark, no one has ever associated them with slavery or racism. The tradition began in 1929 and has included future Miss America Lee Meriwether. The 50 girls have made appearances in the Rose Bowl Parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and even at Disneyworld.
THE COSTUME “PROBLEM”
Mr. Vaughn is insulted because the girls are wearing what some call “antebellum” costume. The prominent feature of the period is a hoopskirt, or a crinoline. Unfortunately Mr. Vaughn appears to assume that the costume was worn only in the pre-Civil War South, and was worn only by women who were slave owners. To make such an assumption is exhibit abject ignorance about the history of fashion.
The style Mr. Vaughn denigrates as Gone with the Wind was worn throughout the world. The evolution of the “Scarlett O’Hara dress” began as something of a rebellion against the beautiful Regency styles familiar to anyone who is a fan of Jane Austen, and were a hallmark of the reign of Queen Victoria in England.
During the period chronicled by Jane Austen, women were experiencing the first throes of “liberation.” They cast aside the constraints of the corset, and indeed, some women threw away all underwear entirely. It was a time of innocence and freedom for women as the more daring would dampen their sheer gauze gowns so that they would appear to be nude. All the “best” women were doing it, during the winter, only to succumb to pneumonia early in the spring.
THE VICTORIAN SKIRT
By the mid-1820s women discovered their bloomers, stockings, underwear, and no proper woman would be seen even outside her bedroom without her corset. The years of freedom were over as women were soon defined by frail, sloping shoulders, and entombed in a corseted waist that had best be no more than 18 inches. If she moved or took a deep breath, the result was the infamous Victorian swoon. In other words, the woman entombed in that corset and not exactly the regulation 18 inches in the waist would pass out, frequently.
Women were now frail, to be cosseted, waited on, and to be protected. Modern personal space was defined by the circumference of the cage of their increasingly wide skirts – up to six feet in all directions. As the contraptions to alleviate the need for layers and layers of petticoats were invented, so were the jokes. A well woman wearing a cage or crinoline could sit down the wrong way only to have the skirt bounce up in the air and smack her in the face, revealing all.
Talk about a swoon!
By the 1850s the skirt was so large and the petticoats were so heavy something had to be done if the fashion was to continue. The petticoats alone would weigh a good 14 pounds, and that was in the summer. Add the constriction of the corset, and it gave an entirely new definition to the term “fashion victim”.
In 1856 W. S. Thompson patented the Crinoline Cage. Amelia Bloomer put women in “pants” for the first time – in public.
In 1857, Englishman Charles Worth moved to Paris and basically redefined haute couture:
“…fragile gauze dresses decorated with flowers and ribbons that were made for wealthy young women were only intended to be worn for one or two evenings and then cast aside as they soiled and crushed so easily. Silk flowers, froths of tulle and pleated gauze trims would have emphasized the innocence of virginal girls whilst signaling their availability on the marriage market…Older, married more senior women wore statelier fabrics like heavy satins, crisp silks and plush velvet. It was thought good etiquette to dress according to one's position in society and that also meant not wearing clothes more suited to a younger woman….”
Fashion is fashion and women are women, no matter what their age, race, or station in life. Women throughout the “civilized” world wore the style Mr. Vaughn identifies with slavery. One of the most amusing aspects of his terribly ill-informed pronouncement is the fact that women in the US, be them black, white, young old, free or slave endeavored to wear these fashions. For Mr. Vaughn to assume that black women, free or slave, would not be wearing these fashions or not desire to wear these fashions is abject ignorance as to the mindset of women.
Women are slaves to fashion. We all are. We have always been slaves to fashion and unless something drastic occurs within the human mind, we always will be, regardless of age, race, or station in life. It is rather pathetic to make a blanket statement about a subject he obviously knows very little about, no matter what his station in life.
There are more than a few original photographs of African-American women of the Victorian era who are wearing a crinoline or a modified crinoline. Women wore voluminous petticoats, no matter who or what they were.
IT IS NOT ABOUT SCARLETT O’HARA
Mr. Vaughn of the Alabama NAACP is a man. Unfortunately men (most of them) don’t realize this isn’t about Scarlett O’Hara at all. It is all about Cinderella and wearing a fantasy dress.
And yes, this writer once wore a dress like that. I was hosting a costume party and wanted the “perfect” crinoline skirt, that consisted of the regulation 24 feet of fabric at the base of the skirt – and the petticoats that created the 6 foot “poof” all the way around.
Talk about confinement!
I could only go through the double doors of my mother’s house. I could not go out onto the porch where most of the party was occurring because I could not get the dang-blasted dress through the door. I couldn’t sit on a chair, I slid off the moment I sat down. All I could do was sit on a stool. And to do that I had to step over the stool and lower myself down, carefully, with the massive skirt bellowing around me.
It looked wonderful.
It was a total pain.
But it was all about the dress.
With the Mobile Azalea Trail Maids it’s all about the dress and the Cinderella experience. Don’t think like a man looking for discrimination. Put yourself in the mind of a teenage girl. It is about the dress, the fantasy, and being Cinderella and a princess for a day.
Race has nothing to do with it.
It’s about the dress.