Some still saying yes to the dress: dressmakers bemoan belle decision

Azalea Belle dresses on display at Drapery World Interiors. (photo: Peyton Furtado)

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — This year’s Azalea Festival is underway. And though they’re not scheduled to return, you might see a long-time festival tradition as you drive through Wilmington.

Azalea Belle dresses up popping up in front yards and store windows across the Cape Fear in protest.

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“I decided because they eliminated the belles,” dressmaker Kay Godwin explained, “I was going to have mine in my front yard, still.”

Late last year, the Cape Fear Garden Club announced a change to the long standing tradition.

The belles and antebellum dresses of Azalea Festivals past would soon transition to a new program called Ambassadors, involving new outfits.

Many in Wilmington are split on the decision. Azalea Belle dressmaker, Alma Fennell said she’s had people call daily, asking whether her dresses would return.

“And I told them unfortunately, it would not be,” said Fennell. “So that’s what inspired me is to display these dresses so that we can make the public see and to feel maybe there’s a possibility that we will be able to bring them back.”

Fennell is a member of the Cape Fear Garden Club, whose president said they’re moving in a new direction to reflect the changing times.

“Antebellum dresses are reflecting a certain era,” said President Sherry O’Daniell. “A certain period where young ladies didn’t have the opportunities that they have now.”

Fennell disagreed.

“It’s not about the period,” she said. “These gowns were introduced to the public from Europe in the 1600’s.”

That’s why the Ambassadors will have a more active role in the garden tours, O’Daniell said. They’ll wear spring outfits that she hopes will still make those who participate feel beautiful.

“Southern charm comes from within. It doesn’t come from a dress with a hoop in it.”

According to O’Daniell, the Cape Fear Garden Club is unlikely to revive the tradition.

“Like I said, it can still go if somebody wants to take it over. But as far as the gardens go, we would rather adapt,” O’Daniell said.

Fennell hopes the more than 300 gowns she’s designed and created for 49 years will make young women feel beautiful again.

“I’m hoping that with the input from the public and the young ladies, that we will reconsider about the gowns,” said Fennell.