I n M e m o r y o f t h e
Girls in Dresses
For over 20 years Wrightsville Beach Magazine has featured Azalea week events and photos of girls in period dresses in its April
issue. This feature and others were created for publication last April but was held when the 2020 Azalea Festival was canceled with
the intention to publish it in 2021. No one could have foreseen the events that would consume our thoughts and change our world
so drastically this last 14 months — including the ending of more than one time-honored tradition.
Visitors to the annual Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tours of years past would find Azalea Belles® in each garden, at the
ribbon-cutting and other events throughout the week, young women dressed in colorful period gowns with lace gloves and a dainty
Imagine the thrill of being 17 and showing off the fashions from 200 years ago.
E put a gown on them, and they
just explode!” says Alma Fennell,
who along with seamstresses
Kay Godwin and Debbie Scheu
made all the dresses and accessories worn by
the girls over the years. “I have this monster-size
mirror and they just cannot believe how they look.
Their whole personality changes. They are not the
same person as when they put that first gown on.”
The first impression Fennell would witness is shock. When
the girls — high school juniors and seniors, most from New
Hanover County — entered the showroom, or one of the
seamstresses’ homes, there were racks and racks of gowns to
choose from. They hardly knew where to begin.
“They (would) see hundreds of gowns on racks and they
really didn’t know which way to go and that’s why I guide
them,” Fennell says. “Some belles might be athletic, and some
might be more girly, but you have to sort of feel how they are
feeling. Most will ask for a recommendation. And because
I’ve been doing these fittings for 35 years, I can look at a
child, their complexion, height and build and know exactly
what to put on them, and the color.”
About 98 to 99 percent of the time, the teen would pick
the dress that Fennell first recommended, but they tried on as
many of the period bell shaped dresses as they pleased.
The first step was to put the hoop on the belle so they could
see how far the bars go out. Girls would exclaim they couldn’t
walk in the hoop, but the fitters assured them before they left
the fitting, they would be quite comfortable with the flow of
the hoop, pantaloons, gown and all the accessories.
In fact, part of the Azalea Belle® orientation was
to show the girls how to move in the unfamiliar
After a belle said yes to the dress, the next step
was selecting gloves, a parasol, pantaloons, a shawl
— all the accessories that go with the gown.
“Oh, it is incredible how these girls change,
their whole disposition, especially when you put these
lace gloves on and I add ribbons that match the dress, their
eyes just pop,” Fennell says. “It’s like these Disney characters
where they have the Cinderella gown, it is the same thing,
they are so cute and overwhelmed. It is a wonderful feeling
when you see that child so happy, with the perfect dress.”
There were about 132 young women slated to portray belles
in spring 2020 at the annual garden tour and at other North
Carolina Azalea Festival events. They had hundreds of dresses
to select from, each averaging 15 yards of material. Depend-ing
on the style, 60 or 70 yards of lace could also be used to
adorn the dress and its accessories.
“I make the parasols to match the dress in the same mate-rial,
and the girls just pop them open, and they strut around,
it is so cute how they react,” Fennell says. “We do say when
it is windy, don’t open them. They are so delicate, the frames
could break in the wind.”
The girls would also go to the Little Boutique and pick out
ballerina shoes to wear with the gowns. The duties included
doing a lot of walking and standing on grass, which required
flat, comfortable, inexpensive shoes.
B Y C H R I S T I N E R . G O N Z A L E Z