The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 1, 2015

Old Money Chic versus Nouveau Riche Swank: Two Paths of Contemporary Southern Fashion, and Their Social Implications

Southern model and sometime Mick-Jagger-girlfriend Jerry Hall said on the 1980s talk show circuiit that her momma taught her that there were no ugly women, only lazy ones, and when it comes to beauty regimens, Southern women are not often lazy.  There is a popular book of humor by a Southern woman writer, Celia Rivenbark, entitled We’re Just Like You, Only Pretty, and women in the South tend to spend a lot longer getting ready to go out for anything other than casual events.  Southern young women tend to wear a full face of makeup, hair that has been flat-ironed and hair-sprayed into place, and outfits are tidy if not fancy.  In that sense, given the time spent on appearance, the statement that Southern women are more pretty might be true, as especially intellectual Yankee women may choose to run out the door with little to no make-up, many own neither flat iron nor hair spray, and appearances are important but to a different measure.

Not all Northern women are great dressers, either.  There are some fashion victims among us, those who believe that things long-since passe are actually perennially hip, and those of us who think that a t-shirt with an ironic slogan on is good fashion even if it makes lumpy in odd places.  I myself will tell you that I am chasing an academic chic look combined with some part of Carole Bouquet’s wardrobe that would fit even an overweight schlub like me.  There!  That’s my disclaimer before my claws come out.

There are two contemporary images of chic in the Southern fashion marketplace, and both are limiting to women.  I have something to say about both.

Country club lady gear as branded by by Reese Witherspoon

Country club lady gear as branded by by Reese Witherspoon

The first is an insipid preppy Stepford-wifely look, one which is the lesser of two evils described in this article.  It is generally sported by women whose mothers were pretty strict about what qualified or did not qualify as “tacky.”  In fact, it is not a tacky look at all.  It is Ladybird Johnson’s look on a boring fashion day.  The latest firm that sells this kind of country club post-collegiate wear is Draper James, a clothing firm owned by movie star Reese Witherspoon.  She models for it, but even she looks a bit upholstered in the floral prints she sells, a bit stifled, and she is utterly gorgeous.  Her accessories range from whimsical smart phone covers that say “Hush y’all!” on the back and the ubiquitous overpriced monogrammed items that sell on her website.  No one would accuse Ms. Witherspoon of being tacky.  But she is selling a look that the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi probably finds a little stuffy now.  The fact that nothing is offensive on her site does not make it inoffensive.  It makes it slightly boring, like the lives of the women she caters to, perhaps, women whose adventures are limited by committee meetings and a rigorously kept gym schedule.  It’s more sensible than it has to be, and because it has no fantasy of the kind one sees in Vogue, it lacks a certain charm.  Like Vogue fashion, though, Draper James aspires, although the aspiration is so modest — to avoid any whiff of impropriety, to keep the embarrassing uncle in the corner at Christmas, to avoid letting the neighbors overhear a marital argument.  Those are the hopes of the Draper James customer, not trips to Paris, not island getaways, unless the island is Hilton Head, and the getaway is for yet another round of golf.

Pretty, bleached, and unapologetically ignorant by reality television stars promoting fashion out of a truck.

Pretty, bleached, and unapologetically ignorant by reality television stars promoting fashion out of a truck.

The other look that seems to be on the rise in the South is strictly nouveau riche.  It is embodied best by the boutique Swank in Atlanta, also known around that city, according to one reality show television personality, as “Skank.”  The owner of the boutique, Emily Boulden, and her “Southern Chic Bestie” as she calls her partner in merchandising Nicole Noles, are unapologetically unsophisticated and over-monied, and they are both gorgeous women of a particularly artificial beauty.  Both have had plastic surgery (by their own televised admission — they appear both on a makeover show called Get Swank’d and an embarrassment to Atlanta called Pretty Wicked Moms on the Lifetime network, a show so catty it makes any Real Housewives look demure and reasonable), spray-on tans, and bleached teeth and hair.  They are incredibly pretty, and they are not the meanest of the Regina Georges on television, but they are almost proud of being ignorant.  One asks on one episode if we live in the twenty-first century.  Another confuses (though apparently both have college degrees) “decolletage” with “decoupage,” though they work in fashion.  They are vain about their looks the way that Ricky Bobby’s fictional hot blonde wife was about hers — in fact, they look like Carley Bobby, and they are about as clever and as vulgar.  In episodes of Pretty Wicked Moms, they urinate in the woods, they pick up dog poop, and they get drunk and curse. In one episode, we see them contemplating who they will vote for, and they are so woefully uniformed that their cynical himbo husbands laugh at them — a setback for the Nineteenth Amendment and for gender relations everywhere.  These women actually do have a coherent and somewhat original fashion esthetic.  It is as if a pageant queen met Bob Mackie on his way out of Cher’s dressing room and started making live-human-sized copies of Malibu Barbie’s wardrobe.  Their accessories are absolutely lovely — no, I do not mean that ironically.  I love the big, chunky jewelry they choose, the faux-fur accents, the maribou feathers, but the problem is that every look is overstated in its entirety. One piece of clothing from Swank is something a New York woman would surely wear.  An outfit from Swank would not be worn except on Labor Day during the Caribbean-American parade.

The very name of the boutique, Swank, is an insult to the brand.  “Swanky” is what the distinctly uncultured people called the high society social set from a distance.  Nobody who actually has “swank,” would ever say “swank.” The sad dysfunction of women who need hours to groom themselves but haven’t read a book voluntarily perhaps ever is depressing, despite the gold lame and jewel tones. The makeovers they perform, these two swankstresses, on Get Swank’d do seem to flatter the recipients quite well, but the two women themselves, if they are the epitome of their brand, they are caricatures of dolls, not women who dress with anything that ought to be called chic (“bestie,” by the way, is not a word that chic people use, either).  They seem to aspire to be Stepford wives with more cleavage showing, not empowered businesswomen.  They have skills, but they seem to have lost their souls somewhere on their way to the reality TV casting call.

So I criticize Southern fashion here in such a manner that I might be a bit Regina George-ish myself, but my intentions are actually pure.  If I thought these women, the ones in country club attire monogrammed everywhere, or the ones dressed like guest stars on Sonny and Cher,were enabled to be happy and free by what they chose to wear, if I honestly thought these clothes boosted self-esteem or at least did not damage it, I would be mute on the topic.  Instead, I see women who don’t raise their voices at a cotillion on one hand of the fashion divide and women who holler nonsense and obscenities at a pole dancing class on the other.  I can only suspect that the Draper James fashion literally hems women in, but I know from watching the reality show the swankstresses joined that clothes do not make the woman, or rather do not make a nasty girl into a strong woman.  I see spoiled, petulant nouveau riche lost souls, and I see suffocating debutantes.

Where are the cowgirls, the Ruby Thewes from Cold Mountain, and the many, many capable Southern ladies I have personally met?  I want them to be honored by Southern chic, and neither of these directions in fashion do.

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