Above: Kay Goodwin between two Azalea Belle dresses she made.
Written By: Becka Jackson | Photographed By: Arthur Green
Visitors who come to Wilmington for the Azalea Festival expect to see lush gardens blooming with flowers of every color that have been carefully cultivated all year. What they do not expect is to be greeted by one hundred of the Cape Fear region’s most beautiful and respectable young ladies, dressed in antebellum hoops and skirts designed to reflect the beauty of the flowers themselves. The Azalea Belles spend months applying, preparing, and rehearsing to serve as gracious hosts to visitors on the Garden Tour. But there is another group of ladies who work behind the scenes—without them, there would be no Azalea Belles at all.
Kay Godwin learned to sew her own clothes in the ’50s because, as her daddy put it, “Either you make it, or you don’t get it.” In 1969, her mother began working with the Cape Fear Garden Club to supply gowns for the Garden Tour. She was known to be a talented creator of slipcovers and draperies, and the Garden Club needed a seamstress talented enough to make their visions of Southern charm and antebellum splendor come to life.
As the number of Azalea Belles grew each year, it was clear that Kay’s mother, the sole dressmaker since 1969, needed some help. Alma Fennell, another seamstress known for her talent with drapery and upholstery, began contributing dresses in 1984. Kay made a few dresses each year until 1992, when she took over the responsibility from her mother.
This year, Kay is working on a lavish golden gown lined with row after row of gathered fabric. She started sewing early in 2016 even though she doesn’t have a Belle for the dress yet. Years ago, a neighbor brought her a picture of the gold dress, and she’s always wanted to bring it to life. She says this dress will take about 100 hours total to complete because of the complexity. “I have a passion,” Kay says. “I’m not here to make the same pattern in a different color or different fabric.”
Alma Fennell, owner of Drapery World Interiors for the last 45 years, has been a seamstress since she was seven years old, making clothes for her dolls and siblings out of leftover fabric from her mother’s department store. When she’s not decorating, measuring, or cutting fabric for her business, she sews her entire wardrobe and creates dresses for the Belles.
Alma has a stock of over 300 gowns in her upstairs showroom that the girls can pick from, but sometimes the right dress does not exist yet. Each year, Alma makes between six and eight new gowns and retires one or two. Alterations to the bodice (upper half) of an existing dress are simple. Starting an antebellum gown from scratch is another story.
First, she sketches up a dress according to the girl’s vision. “I recommend what colors will look good on them,” Alma explains. “What will enhance their natural beauty?” For an uncomplicated dress, Alma says she can finish one in a day once she’s cut the fabric and measured the Belle. Most of her dresses, however, include an element of sophistication: layers upon layers of ruffles, over thirty yards of lace. Each new dress is named after the Belle who wore it. “Believe it or not,” Alma says, “after thirty-some years I can remember every dress.”
When a group of ladies from the Garden Club attended a theater production set in the 1850s at Thalian Hall, they knew they wanted to utilize the talents of that costume designer. Debbie Scheu became the third dressmaker in 1993. She has been a seamstress for 65 years, since she sat by her mother’s side at the sewing machine and made diapers for her dolls with scrap fabric. Just as the other two dressmakers have their own style, Debbie’s is influenced by her background in theater. “For me, the Azalea Belle dresses are an extension of what I already do,” Debbie says. “I am a costume designer, and my dresses reflect that.”
Debbie loves the intimate process of creating a new dress for a specific Belle. She owned a sewing machine store for nine years and taught sewing classes to children and adults alike, so she already knows some of the Belles that come to her. “My belief is that the girls have to be happy,” Debbie explains. “I usually have this sense. If they don’t light up when they put the dress on, then I have to keep looking.” Usually, this is how she knows that a Belle needs a new dress instead of one from the stock—because, as Debbie says, “the one thing I cannot supply for you is the smile.”
Becka Jackson is a sophomore at UNCW studying Creative Writing and English. After graduating, she hopes to work with writers at a publishing house. Becka is from Colorado Springs, CO and likes to knit and explore in her free time.