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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June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

February 20, 2012

Surprise! My step-daughter’s seventeenth birthday, or a Yankee ambush the South can endorse

Charlotte and her friend Hannah looking both sweet and Southern

Charlotte turned seventeen last week, and in keeping with local matronly customs, I threw her a party.  Because, however, I wanted to surprise her, I involved her favorite teacher at school, her track and field coach, and the entire (small) group of girls in her class.  They all knew that I would arrive with balloons and flowers in my hand, a tune of one of her favorite indie rock bands blasting through my car’s speakers, to whisk them all away for manicures, pedicures, and Chinese food.

This was one Yankee ambush the South could get behind.

Women down here love throwing parties; it is a mark of maturity and refinement.  I’m not sure that my utterly un-veranda-ed and foreign-cuisine-laden fete qualifies me for membership in the local Junior League, but I finally seem to have hit a positive note here, as far as my neighbors are concerned.  Mothers and daughters graciously RSVP-ed and enjoyed the subterfuge, seemed to approve of my party favors and invitations, seemed to enjoy the unusual (for here) party activities.

The girls who came enjoyed themselves, I think, and Charlotte tells me they liked me, too, calling me “the sweetest thing ever.”  Girls in cheerleader outfits called me “ma’am,” and they found it fascinating that I could speak foreign languages of a variety of kinds.  I promised these girls that if they came over to our house at a non-surprising moment, I would gladly feed them my non-Southern cooking and speak to them in whatever language they liked.

You know they're friends because they have a sign that says so

The fact that I had an album by indie band Down with Webster — at my age — makes me an unusual step-momma.  So does having a giant poster of David Bowie incorporated into my kitchen’s design.  Being internationally focused is unusual — all of these girls have commendable future plans — veterinary school, human medical school, international business, but the majority of them intend to stay within the boundaries of the state of Mississippi.  Some of  them have boyfriends who really might become husbands already.  In truth, I find them every bit as exotic as they find me.

At least everyone seems to have had a lovely time.  It is they, in fact, these bright, energetic girls, who are the sweetest things ever.

Happy birthday, Charlotte.  May all the surprises life throws you be as pleasant for you as you seem to have found this one.

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