Cape Fear Garden Club ends long-standing tradition at NC Azalea Festival

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — A 50 year tradition in the Cape Fear is coming to an end. The Cape Fear Garden Club has decided to end the Azalea Belles.

2020/2021 Azalea Garden Tour chair Sandy Cyphers says 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 yearly practice has been under scrutiny for the past few years by critics who say it glorifies slavery and the pre-civil war era. However, a longtime Azalea Belles dressmaker disagrees.

Kay Godwin has been making dresses for Azalea Belles for 30 years, following in her mother’s footsteps. She works out of a small shop on the side of her home, and says she really enjoys her work.

“I love to see the girls standing in front of that mirror and see a beautiful girl that they never realized they were until they put on that hoop and that dress,” Godwin said.

After three decades it appears Godwin’s work is coming to an end. Cyphers says with all of the changes going on in the world, the 408 members of the Garden Club voted to discontinue the Azalea Belles.

“It reflects back to a time that people do not want to go back to or remember that,” she said.

Critics of the practice say it glorifies slavery and the pre-civil war south. A petition to ‘Disband the Belles,’ started by a former belle, states “young women are lured into praising a white supremacist society by playing the role of high-class, big-hoop-dress-wearing slave owners.”

Cyphers says the decision to replace belles with ambassadors came after a few years of discussion and consideration.

“It was voted to change to a more modern dress, we’re still working on that at this time, as to what the young ladies will be wearing,” she said.

Godwin on the other hand believes this decision was a mistake, saying people have the wrong idea about the dresses.

“Everybody thinks that’s associated with slavery or with the confederacy, but no,” Godwin said. “My history books, I’ve got pictures right here, these dresses were in France, Austria, Scotland, England.”

Godwin considers the dresses to be more like something a Disney princess would wear. She adds that she’s dressed belles of different ethnicities.

Now she doesn’t know what she’ll do with the more than 130 dresses she has for rent.

“I hate to see the little girls coming along that have looked so many years to be a princess in a fairy tale garden not able to be that,” Godwin said. “They’ll never be able to do that now.”

The Garden Club is currently taking suggestions and feedback from members as to what the girls will wear.

Cyphers adds that the club is planning next year’s tour and plan to hold it, but will continue to monitor the pandemic and adhere to restrictions.

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