Each year in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, 50 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 résumé includes extracurricular activities ranging from after-school jobs, to class president, to reserve officer’s training corps (ROTC). Once the dress is on, however, they generally don’t speak.
There is a disconnect between what the dress historically represents 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 Freeman Rutledge is a photographer based in Seattle, Washington. Originally from small town Alabama, her personal work often challenges enduring traditions by underscoring tensions between cultural practices and cultural realities.
Adair’s photography has been commissioned by such brands as Amazon, John Deere, and Lands’ End. Her work has also been selected for numerous awards, most recently appearing in the prestigious hardcover annual, “2017 American Photography 33,” and as a 2017 Critical Mass Finalist.