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.

August 16, 2015

From Homecoming Court Member to ISIS Member — How One Young Woman Responded to Mississippi

How does a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi, not raised Muslim, a woman, decide to join ISIS? Jaelyn Deshaun Young recently graduated from Warren County High School on the edge of Vicksburg.  She was in the homecoming court, meaning that she was no loner; people at school liked her and thought she was pretty, which she is. She got good grades, went to Mississippi State with an eye toward becoming a doctor.  Her father was  police officer in the Vicksburg police department; he had served in Afghanistan prior to that, where he fought Al Qaeda.  He took his family to church on Sundays.  How does a young woman raised in that atmosphere decide her destiny is to join a terrorist, Christian-persecuting, woman-raping organization that beheads other Muslims and destroys precious works of ancient art?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

It would be easy to blame her young husband, Muhammad Dakhlalla.  His father was a leader at a local mosque in Starkville, Mississippi, near the university campus.  He must have radicalized her. Except this is not what the FBI says happened. They say that it was Jaelyn who led the charge toward ISIS, according to their investigation.  Muhammad, known to most as “Mo,” was not a radical. His father’s Islam manifested itself publicly in feeding the poor.  He ran a restaurant in Starkville until he had to close it down; he was giving away more food than he was selling. This kind of religious practice is not likely to lead to beheadings. Jaelyn certainly converted to Islam while she was getting to know Mo, but he wasn’t pushing the couple into a life of terrorism.  Mo told the FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters that he was willing to fight and die for the Islamic state, but their most impassioned correspondent, itching to get to Syria to fight, was Jaelyn.

So how does a pretty, smart, charismatic girl who grew up in Mississippi in a Christian home decide not just to convert to an Islam guided by acts of charity but to an Islam guided by acts of terror?

She must have first grown disenchanted.  Teenagers are champions of disenchantment. I know I was. When I was in high school, I wrote an angry chapbook of poetry, which I dedicated to “high school students and other inmates of society.”  I had spiky, red hair for a time.  I sneaked out to parties with lots of people wearing brightly-striped Mohawks in places like abandoned warehouses, parties with punk bands that got shut down by the cops, parties where I had to run out the back door because of a raid. I thought high school was a cruel farce. Instead of going to senior prom, I sneaked out to meet a neon abstract sculptor whom I was dating (after meeting him in a cutting-edge art gallery where he was exhibiting his work) for a night of transgression. I refused to attend graduation. Jaelyn must have felt something like this – only there are no Mohawk-punk-band-warehouse-parties in Vicksburg. She would have had to channel her feelings of discontent elsewhere.

I imagine her father, a police officer and a veteran, must be a fairly conservative, pro-establishment kind of a man. He must have told his daughter that education was the path to success.  She certainly did well in school. She surely made more friends than I did at my high school; new wave art girls do not tend to get elected to homecoming court. The social establishment was not, it seemed, particularly rejecting of her. Her revolt could not have been because of a prom scene like the one out of Carrie.

That said, Jaelyn is a woman of color, and Vicksburg is a town where there are racists.  I know because I lived there.   They talked to me about people of color in disparaging ways sometimes. Though her father is a police officer, it would be hard to watch the national pattern of police brutality against people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the tanks and tear gas thrown at peaceful protesters in Ferguson, and not get disgusted, to feel as if America were terrorizing black folks.  It is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Black lives matter, and it does not seem that police forces across the country acknowledge this. How could this problem NOT strike home for a young woman of color whose father was on the police force?

But rage and disenchantment are not enough to explain the embracing of a radical form of Islam that rapes, beheads, and destroys. How could a smart young woman conclude that these were her allies? She, like so many who choose to join ISIS, must have been ignorant of what real Islamic Caliphates looked like a thousand years ago.  There, women had more freedom than they did in the Christian nations.  Medicine, science, and the arts flourished.  Religions of every stripe were tolerated. While it was dangerous to cross a caliph, the caliphs were not known for kidnapping, torturing, and brutalizing people under their power.  Nothing about ISIS suggests they are trying to build such a caliphate.  They destroy art.  They oppress and enslave women.  They kill Christians, crucifying them, killing their babies before their eyes, even desecrating ancient Christian cemeteries.  They used mustard gas on a town last week – a chemical weapon so brutal and horrid that it was banned after World War I by the Geneva Convention, that thought it ought not be used against enemy soldiers.  ISIS used it on children a few days ago.  This is not an Islamic caliphate of old.  This is a demonic holocaust.  How does a daughter of a man who fought Al Qaeda decide to join such a group?

I look into the face of this pretty girl, taken from her high school yearbook, and like her parents, I don’t understand.  The FBI agents claim that when that Islamic gunman shot a bunch of Marines recently at a recruiting office, she rejoiced that the numbers of people who agreed with her were growing. I see the pretty, demure smile on the face of this young lady, and I am baffled.  I want to ask her what could have ever made her so angry at the sleepy town of Vicksburg that she would want not just Islam instead of Christianity but this brutal form of it.  I want to ask her who hurt her so badly she thinks she needs to join a group of monsters for protection from them. I would take her to the NAACP Jackson headquarter to sign up to register voters, something I did when I lived in Vicksburg.  I want to take her to a party of free thinkers, rare as they may be in a place like Vicksburg.

I want to give her a book of Rumi’s peaceful poetry. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is perhaps the greatest poet from Islam who ever lived.  He lived in an Islamic caliphate that encouraged his work.

He wrote:

“’Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jaelyn, I would meet you there.  Let me urge you, with an Islamic mystical poet, not to throw away your life to become cannon fodder for a pack of fascists, or now, where you are in America, a jail bird.  There are so many other ways to reject Mississippi culture, if you feel you need to.  Meet me there, and you, Rumi, and I will talk.

February 28, 2010

Hair

My hair with recently done Southern color

“The Higher the hair, the closer to God.” — K.D. Lang

Not quite the look I was going for

While there are good hair days and bad hair days  everywhere, in the South, there are superhuman challenges to good hair days.  Astonishing humidity turns even the most flat-ironed tresses into brillo pads.  Provincial hair cuts seem like a bad day in Dollywood.   And not all Southern women have given up complex up-dos for moderately formal occasions.  However, the ladies of the South have a sense of hair warfare when it comes to battling their sundry hair challenges.  If there are white women without flat irons here, I haven’t met them.  Some even carry them in their purse along with the ubiquitous can of hair spray.  I used to wonder why all the stiffness occupied the coifs of the sisters of gamma delta phi, but now I understand — surrender doesn’t mean a return to antebellum sausage curls.  In this era of global warming and life without parasols, it means a tenure as the bride of Frankenstein.  Between monster movie hair and sorority hair, I pick sorority hair, too.

Despite my trepidations about potential bee hives and under-cultured characters straight from the drag play of Steel Magnolias on Christopher Street in the 1980s, I discovered that my fears were largely unfounded in the twenty-first century.

My lawyer in Vicksburg, Leslie Rowe Sadler, has  lovely hair.  If I had her permission (I have not asked — I’m writing this post around midnight, and I imagine she’s out of the office), I’d post her photo here — she has a conservative, CNN newscast-worthy blonde bob.  Now, I had seen some nasty hair coloring around town, but Leslie, when I went to see her — she put my name on the house with my husband’s — and she was gracious enough to give me some advice about where I could go and entrust my hair and my nails, where the independent book sellers were, where the places were that I might find a  smattering of urbanity.

She told me to go to Barnette’s salon in Jackson, the one above the bridal salon across from the nice independent bookstore.

Understand that my colorist in New  York and I have a special bond.  Florentina is one of my favorite people on Earth.  In a city of sultry brunettes, Florentina instinctively understood my need for big blonde hair and did not try to make me into either a frosted Debbie Harry, an aging Carmela Soprano, a who-are-we-kidding Lady Gaga or  an overly subdued Hillary Clinton.  She understood my need for verisimilitude.  She understood my need to be that blonde actually having more fun but not necessarily the kind that gentlemen prefer.  She neither over nor under processed my hair, and I count among my happier hours in New York hours where Florentina told me about her daughter while wrapping small bits of my hair in individual foil packets and where I percolated to a  nice golden blonde with dozens of aluminum boxy antennae pointing outward toward my mother ship.

I miss Florentina.

That said, I have made a marvelous discovery.  Most Southern white women want my color.  My hair, which is coarse, is every woman’s hair in a Mississippi summertime.  Unlike in Florentina’s chair, where I think I had a relatively unusual request, color-wise, my hair is the absolute happy meal of the deep South.  Every colorist here trains to give it, so while replacing  Florentina the woman  is unthinkable, finding a suitable professional was sufficient to guarantee success.

I found hapiness in a stool at Barnettes.  My requests for cut and color were implicitly understood.  The aging cheerleader who marries the ex-football  player — she  has this hair.  The non-obsessive Martha Stewart matron, she has this hair.  The head of the alumni committee for Delta Nu, she has this hair.

My hair has found its roots.  The roots have stubborn gray, these days, but the color — the root of it — is the Southern bodacious blonde.  While Mississippi remains a disorienting landscape culturally to me, my hair has found its mother ship.  Those antennae pointed to a GPS system that guided it home, down home.

I don’t think I  look  half bad, do you?

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