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Ruffled Feelings

Azalea Trail MaidsWho owns the hoop skirt? 

In the mid-nineteenth century, the answer would have been more or less every Western woman of means.  From the layers of petticoats used to achieve a bell shape in the early part of the nineteenth century to the patented cage crinolines or "hoop skirts" used to achieve width without as much weight, the silhouette was universal.

Today, the more appropriate question might be, "Who wants to own a hoop skirt?"  Apart from the occasional bride with visions of Princess Diana dancing in her head, such extreme shapes are generally limited to costume dramas, historical reenactments, and high-style goth gatherings. 

A recent dispute related to next week's Inaugural Parade, however, has once again focused attention on the style and raised questions about its cultural meaning and who has the right to define it.  On one side are the Azalea Trail Maids of Mobile, Alabama, a bevy of pastel-clad beauties prepared to represent their state in the parade.  On the other is the head of the Alabama NAACP, who believes that the antebellum costumes are a reminder of slavery and have no place representing modern-day Alabama in the President-elect's historic festivities.

Mary Todd Lincoln in inaugural gownWhatever your position on the Azalea Trail Maids -- the issue is a complex amalgam of race, gender, and red-blue politics, further complicated by the fact that 11 of the 50 Maids are women of color -- it's interesting to witness the transformation of period dress into a contested cultural product.  Like the Confederate battle flag or whistling Dixie, those hoops now carry more weight than originally intended. 

The bottom line:  Barack Obama may be reading about Abraham Lincoln and even basing an inaugural menu around Lincoln's favorite foods, but don't expect Michelle to imitate Mary Todd Lincoln's choice of inaugural gown.