What is the history behind the tradition of Azalea Belles?

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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — With the ending of a longstanding tradition here in the Cape Fear, their are mixed emotions. The Cape Fear Garden Club announced the end of the Azalea Belles, a decades-long tradition in Wilmington.

“The Azalea Festival got started in 1948,” New Hanover County Public Library Special Collections Librarian Travis Souther said. “There had been a few people who had actually dressed in colonial and antebellum dresses as the garden tour went from place to place.”

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Souther says the dresses women wore at the Azalea Festival slowly became an unwritten tradition. He says it was in 1969 when the Cape Fear Garden Club officially started the Azalea Belles.

“They wore the dresses that had been left over from a Civil War centennial celebration that had been called ‘The Cape Fear Confederate Ball’,” Souther said.

Souther says the dresses women wore were from both the Antebellum and colonial time periods. He says this was the type of clothing people wore to a ball, not every day wear.

With the Garden Club’s decision to end the Azalea Belles, there’s been controversy over whether it glorifies a pre-Civil War time period, or is simply a fun tradition. Souther says he can see both sides.

“On the one hand, you can see, yes,” he said. “It has been a part of the Azalea Festival for 50 years, so I can see where people are saying it’s a tradition, but a the same time, I can definitely see how it represents a time period or attitude that some might find offensive.”

Going forward, gardens will be filled with tour ambassadors. They will continue to be junior and senior girls from New Hanover County high schools. The Garden Club is taking suggestions from members about what the girls should wear instead.