Staff photo by Emmy Errante
Wrightsville Beach resident Tatum Jacaruso will serve as a Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Belle for the North Carolina Azalea Festival April 10-14.
Though 17-year-old Tatum Jacaruso normally dons dark tights under cutoff jean shorts and a flannel shirt when she’s going out about her hometown in Wrightsville Beach, this high school senior said that she’s stepping out of her comfort zone — literally and figuratively — and into a bright fuchsia hooped dress.
“I thought that I might as well go all the way and pick a bright color and not do it half way,” she said last Thursday, March 14.
Her outfit is complete with an ivory parasol with matching fuchsia bows along the side. Jacaruso said she chose her fuchsia belle dress, with petal-like ruffles, because it reminded her of the azalea flowers celebrated each spring.
“It’s almost as if I’m representing an azalea,” she said.
Tatum’s parents, Patti and Michael Jacaruso, have had three daughters, all with different personalities, styles and tastes, to share in the same tradition of serving as an Azalea Belle.
“Once they find out that all of their friends are doing it, then they light up, then they ‘get it,’” Patti said. “They get the social aspect of it, they get the photos, they understand what it is to be a part of it … [and] I realized it was quintessentially southern to be a part of something like this.”
Jacaruso writes poetry and short stories and said she’ll possibly study journalism when she goes to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill next fall, and while this young belle is unlikely to put on ruffles and pink most any other day, being a belle has been the ultimate attempt to try something new.
“I’ve kind of always been an introvert and a tomboy,” she said. “So, it was a bigger step than just putting on a dress. For me it was more of putting aside a lot of insecurities and putting myself out there in this bright dress, and not trying to blend in like usual.”
Azalea Belles do not blend into the scenery, not only for the vivid colors of their ensembles, but also because of the sheer size and bulk of their dresses.
“I didn’t realize the mechanics that went on under the dress, with the hoop and everything,” Jacaruso said.
Though Jacaruso said that the weight of the dress is not unbearable, it is certainly heavier than what she thought it would be, even resulting in bruises for some girls. She said it’s hardly noticeable as the belles all laugh and giggle at their awkward moves.
“[The dress] is definitely a bit of a hassle, but it’s also very fun and you feel like you’re in a different time period. It definitely gives me an appreciation for the women who had to wear them long ago,” she said.
While many aspects of wearing the dress and its accessories came as a surprise to Jacaruso, she said that she was more taken aback by how many friends are also belles this year, as well as the responsibilities they will all have in the coming weeks.
For decades the Cape Fear Garden Club has recreated this piece of antebellum culture, and Cathy Poulos, chairwoman of the club’s Azalea Belle Committee, said in an interview on Wednesday, March 13 that the Azalea Belles often serve as ambassadors for the area and festival.
“People are coming into our community from all over and these girls welcome them into our gardens,” she said. “And I think they gain a greater awareness of what our community has to offer … and it’s important to our community, because we’re putting out best foot forward.”
Poulos also said that being a belle offers a broad experience for a wide range of personalities and interests outside of frilly dresses.
“Some people think that all they do is stand around, but there’s a lot of responsibility with the job. Once they get their assignments it’s very intense during the festival, they have to be on time, prepared and know what they’re supposed to do,” she said.
Primary assignments include greeting visitors during the three-day Azalea Garden Tour from April 12 – 14, as well as appearances at other festival events scheduled.
Most of all though, Tatum Jacaruso is looking forward to putting herself out in the world, huge dress and all, to branch out, meet new people and get involved with the community and its Southern heritage.
“I’ve learned that there’s a lot of Southern pride and tradition here, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” she said. “I’m the last person anyone would think would be a belle, but I’ve actually turned out to really enjoy it and it’s nice to do something different for a change.”
For a full schedule of Azalea Festival events from April 10 -14, visit www.ncazaleafestival.org