Service, Community, Sisterhood: Dogwood Trail, with new handsewn, custom dresses made by one seamstress, debuts new court at the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival.

By Allison Marlow
Managing Editor
Posted 3/21/23

FAIRHOPE — It is about so much more than the dress.Sure, there are hundreds of yards of specially dyed fabric. Nearly 1,000 hours of expert craftsmanship by a single seamstress. There are …

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Service, Community, Sisterhood: Dogwood Trail, with new handsewn, custom dresses made by one seamstress, debuts new court at the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival.


FAIRHOPE — It is about so much more than the dress.
Sure, there are hundreds of yards of specially dyed fabric. Nearly 1,000 hours of expert craftsmanship by a single seamstress. There are delicately embroidered details for each lucky girl who wears them.
And yes, the members of the Dogwood Trail Court absolutely love their dresses.
But that's not what they talk about when someone asks why they wanted to take on the year-long goodwill tour commitment that amounts to spending 200 hours in the giant, colorful dresses that have become symbolic of weekend fun on Baldwin County's Eastern Shore.
Instead, this experience is friendship. Sisterhood. Community.

"This is like being in a big family," said Elle Caroline Blackmon, of the 2022 court. "This is 63 years of tradition. That's a lot of connections."


The Dogwood Trail Pageant is hosted every January by the Eastern Shore Optimist Club and crowns six teens from Daphne, Spanish Fort and Fairhope as its Goodwill Ambassadors for the coming year. Contestants are judged in four categories — essay, interview, creative introduction and presence and composure.

The contest began in the 1960s as a mean of crafting a court for the king and queen of Dogwood Trail, named each year by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce. At that time, court members wore traditional costumes that represented the nations and cultures that had settled in Baldwin County.
By the middl of that decade, the program morphed into a pageant that more closely aligned with the America's Junior Miss Program, now known as Distinguished Young Women. Organizers continued to mold and stretch the court's appearance and purpose into what is now one of the most recognizable groups on the Eastern Shore, if not all of Baldwin County.
Festooned in the bright pastel gowns held aloft by hoop skirts that measure 16 feet around at the bottom, court members appear at festivals, school events and religious services. They hug children. They hold hands with adoring elderly grandmothers. They pose for photos. They talk to anyone who approaches.
"We are all servant-hearted girls," Blackmon said. "There is a light that comes onto people's faces when they see us and that is the most rewarding part of this experience – seeing the joy you bring just by being present."


The Dogwood Trail Court members' joy may come from within, but those gowns come from a very busy seamstress named Susan Finizola.
After serving for decades on the Mobile Azalea Trail Maid's committee, four years ago, Finizola, already an accomplished seamstress, took on the task of crafting all six Dogwood Court gowns. She completes the annual order in just over two months.
Finizola's dress-making studio is a former three-bedroom home in Mobile, gifted to her by her mother-in-law for the sole purpose of housing her sewing studio. There are dozens of machines, shelves of rolls of rich, pastel-colored fabric, stacks of thread and boxes of tulle and ribbon.

Yellow, blue, aqua, lavender, peach and pink is repeated on every label, the court's signature colors. There is no squabbling over color selection among court members. Instead, they say, the colors choose you.
The day after the pageant court members gather with Dogwood Trail Committee officials who use the hats, finished before the pageant, to determine which color looks best with a court member's complexion, eye and hair color.
Once that decision is made, Finizola gets to work. She builds the hoops first, a design that was adjusted from earlier years that allows the shape to round out in the front.
If a plumber has ever snaked the pipes in your home to clear them of debris, you have seen the same material Finizola uses to build her hoops.
Plumber's steel is strong enough to hold the weight of 40-pounds of fabric the dress is crafted from. The edge of that steel is held together with strapping tape, which doesn't stretch. Gorilla tape wasn't strong enough. It gets gummy in the heat.
Each layer of the gown ends with a hand stitched ruffle. About every five years the design incorporates lace.
Dress watchers may notice that the style of the ruffles change over the years. Rather than five layers of ruffles that simply drop every few inches, Finizola scalloped them to gather in the center of the dress rather than simply drape across.
For those looking even more closely, the width of the ribbon dropped in half from 7/8 inches wide to just 3/8 of an inch. The smaller measurement makes for a daintier, softer look.
The 2023 dresses incorporate a deep v-shaped back, a design Finizola calls "ambitious" for the quick production time. It also marks a return to the full, straight layers making for a fluffier, lighter looking skirt.
The most exciting change year to year, court members said, are the intricately stitched flowers that decorate the apron panels, and hand gauntlets.
The dogwood flowers embroidered on the gowns are intended to represent the region's floral heritage, says Renie Kennedy, a 2022 court member.
One year, roses were added to the design. In 2021 a butterfly was incorporated into the work to represent a new beginning as the nation recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Court members are quick to point out that they are not, in fact, maids. Nor are they Southern belles.
In January of last year, controversy broke out in Mobile when members of that city's Azalea Trail Maids were blocked from attending the Senior Bowl because officials claimed the dress, similar in design to the those worn by Dogwood Court members, harkened of an antebellum style.
Finizola said the dresses are only similar in the fact that they use a hoop.
"Women were wearing hoops almost 100 years before the Civil War and 100 years after," she said. "They're not meant to be historical."


After one morning with the 2022 court members, it's clear they are meant to be the life of the party.

Before Infirmary Health's Spring Fever Chase race on Saturday, the court members led the racers in a series of stretches and warmups. Then they smiled for photos and greeted children and adults alike.
All six of the teens then hopped on a golf cart, hoop skirts and all, to ride up to the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival and work the crowds there before attending the induction ceremony for the 2023 court chosen in January of this year.
It is during these visits that the court members say they do their most important work. Each new community engagement is a moment to not just learn how to be a better ambassador for the optimist club, but to grow their own strengths.
They learn to listen. They learn to put visitors at ease. They also learn that those giant hoops create a nearly airtight seal when they curtsy low to the ground.
When they pop themselves back into a standing position, the rushing air makes a slushing sound.
They build upper body strength as quickly as they build confidence.
"When I was little, I was so shy. That little girl would never think she would talk to this many people every day," said Tommie-Lynn Smith, of the 2022 court. "I see how much I've grown and how much confidence I have in the dress."
Her time on the court influences her to do better in other places, she said.
"I think if I can do this in the dress, I can do this without the dress. I'm really thankful I was able to be a part of this and grow from this," Smith said.
At noon on Saturday of the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival, two rows of court members stood before a cheering audience. The 2022 court had begun the countdown to their final appearance as the 2023 court was making their first.
Then, teens turned away from the crowds and embrace each other. The wide brim of their hats touch and give way as they hug and wipe away tears.
In the crowd are yellows, blues, aquas, lavenders, peaches and pinks, as they call each other, from years prior. They've spent the morning reminiscing and taking photos together, a rainbow of friendship stretched across the years.
"I love the fact that this is such a big sisterhood," Smith said. "It doesn't matter what court you were on or what year. We all have such an appreciation for each other and for this role. It's so much more than the dress."