It all started at her neighbor’s Christmas party in the early ‘80s. As a young girl, Ashley Nance (formerly Ashley Lowe) looked forward to this gathering every year. Families joined together to celebrate the season, put in their last-minute gift requests with Santa Claus and ate as many candy canes as physically possible. But for Nance, it was the meet and greet with the Vestavia Belles, a group of local high-school girls dressed in beautiful, antebellum-style gowns, she cherished the most.
“Every year at that Christmas party, I just remember thinking, ‘I really want to be one of those girls,’” Nance recalls.
Fast-forward a few years to 1988, a year Nance will not ever forget—the year she was selected to serve her community as part of the Vestavia Belle organization, the city’s official group of junior hostesses who are chosen based on character, personality and sense of civic responsibility. It was finally her turn after so many years of dreaming. Her first assignment? Find the perfect, over-the-top, Civil War-era ball gown, a wardrobe requirement for all girls who are chosen as a Belle.
“I wanted the dress from the opening scene in Gone with the Wind, the Scarlett O’Hara dress with the five bajillion tiers on it,” Nance says with a laugh. “I wanted all of the poof.”
One local seamstress was up for the challenge, and she did not disappoint. The skirt on the dress alone contained 22 yards of fabric and weighed about 5 pounds. “It was beautiful,” Nance beams.
Nance, a wife and mother of four, passed on her passion for “Belleing” (which within the Vestavia Hills city limits is defined as “serving as a Vestavia Belle”) to her one and only daughter, Elizabeth, a senior at Vestavia Hills High School, who currently serves in her mother’s beloved dress.
“I remember watching Gone with the Wind one night when I was younger, and my mom asked me if I wanted to try on her dress,” Elizabeth says. “I will never forget sitting on the floor, surrounded by the fabric and dreaming of wearing it as a Belle one day.”
Like the Nances, Ashley Moss, a Belle who also served in the late ‘80s, is overcome with sentiment when describing her dress. “My grandmother and mother were very involved in the making of the dress,” Moss says. “The development of the dress took months upon months, and [when it was complete], it was incredible.”
While the dress is an instrumental component, Rita Greene, Vestavia Belle chairman and mother of two previous Belles, emphasizes to all participating young ladies that the dress is just an added bonus of the gig. “We strive for community service,” stresses Greene. “Whether it be in the Belle dress or in other aspects of the area.”
In that same light, Nance always emphasized with her daughter the fundamentals of this particular type of service. “She knows that every time she puts on the dress, she doesn’t belong to herself,” Nance says. “She belongs to the city of Vestavia Hills. It’s not about her, and it’s not about the dress. It’s about serving this wonderful city.”
The Vestavia Belles would not exist today had it not been for the efforts of the late Grace Gravlee. Gravlee sat as the head of the Vestavia Hills Beautification board in the late 1970s and identified a need for volunteers in the community. By 1979, the Vestavia Belles organization was officially established, where young ladies from across the area served at a variety of civic and cultural events. Since that time, they have evolved into an active and integral part of the community.
Moss can attest to the evolution of the Vestavia Belles, particularly the interview process. “My interview was in someone’s living room in a house off of Gay Way,” Moss remembers. “But, over the years, the interview process has definitely developed into a more formal affair.”
Today, girls who want to be a Belle are questioned by a variety of officials at City Hall and should be ready to bring their A-game. Both of Moss’s daughters, who followed in their mother’s footsteps, (Hannah, 23, served from 2011-2013 and Chandler, 20, served from 2014-2016) recommend that girls enter their Belle interview equipped with plenty of Vestavia knowledge, have sharp writing skills and be ready to answer just about anything. (For example, “How does social media have a positive impact on local school systems?”)
“To this day, it was one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever had,” Chandler admits. “It was very intimidating.”
Perhaps the biggest distinction between the earlier generation of Belles and those who serve today is the key role the Belles play at the local library. “When the Library in the Forest opened in 2010, the need for community volunteers rose tremendously,” Rita Greene explains. “I saw an opportunity for the Belles to really be productive [at the library], and to drive home the fact that being a Belle isn’t really about the dress.”
Today, thanks to Greene’s endeavors, every Belle is required to serve eight hours each summer at the Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest Summer Reading Program. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Anne Boston, chairman of the Beautification Board. “The girls learn a lot, and the library gets the help.” And with more than 2,000 students coming through the library doors every summer for the reading program, the library can use all the help they can get.
Like many other organizations, the Belles have evolved and transformed over the years, but there is one fact that remains and will probably never change. “It will never be easy to operate a vehicle while wearing a Belle dress,” Hannah Moss says, laughing. “The hoop [of the dress] has to go up and over the seat of the car.” Nodding in agreement, her younger sister admits she received her fair share of stares as she traveled to Belle events throughout high school. “My dress was always bunched to the ceiling of my poor Toyota Corolla,” Chandler says, chuckling.
While the agility of a Vestavia Belle dress might still be cumbersome, from the sound of it, this struggle never detracted from anyone’s overall experience serving as a Vestavia Belle. “If I could still fit in that dress, I would wear it everyday,” Nance admits. “I had a blast in that dress. And it’s been so fun watching [my daughter Elizabeth] share in this experience as well. Now that she’s getting older, it’s helped us start that transition from a strict mother/daughter relationship to a ‘Hey, I’m your mom, but we can also share in more adult-ish things too’ type of relationship.”
Each spring, all Vestavia Hills Belles (regardless of it being their first, second or third year to serve) are presented at the Belle Presentation & Garden Party with an escort, which, according to the Vestavia Hills Belles Guidelines, can be either a father, step-father, grandfather, brother or uncle.
To learn more about the Vestavia Belles, how to apply or to request the Belles to serve at your next event, visit vestaviabeautiful.com.
Vestavia Belle Dress Guidelines
Each Belle is responsible for the cost of her own antebellum dresses and accessories. The color/design of the dress and shoes must be approved by the Belle Chairman prior to the dress being made. Guidelines include:
Length – A Belle’s dress should be full enough to enough to accommodate a hoop. Recommended length of dress and hoop with shoes on should be 2.5 -3 inches from the floor.
Colors – Dark colors are not allowed including brown, navy, black, grey and red.
Style – Strapless, one shoulder or off-the-shoulder dresses are not allowed. Printed or floral fabrics are not allowed.
Jewelry – Jewelry will consist of pearl stud earrings (6-8mm) and a pearl necklace. No dangle style, rhinestones or extra-large pearl studs are allowed.
Shoes – Comfortable, low-heeled leather shoes are recommended as some events may call for standing as much as 2.5 hours. Avoid satin shoes since some events may require Belles to stand in damp grass, etc. Flip-flops, sandals and tennis shoes are not allowed.
Hats – Wide brim hats are needed. Hats are available in horsehair (either with or without crown) or in straw. White, natural or a color to complement your dress is acceptable.
Gloves – Gloves should be white and wrist length. They may be decorated with ribbon, lace or pearls. Solid, woven materials or crochet style are acceptable. No elbow or three-quarters-length gloves are allowed.
Pantaloons – Pantaloons must be worn. They may be white or a color to complement your dress and should be loose and ankle length.