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.

January 27, 2011

Entering the Jungle Room — Why a Visit to Graceland is a Requirement for American Citizenship

Americans may not like the decor, but we somehow all meet here

Elvis Presley was the embodiment of the public social experiment which demonstrates what happens when someone without education or what Europeans would call “refinement” gets a lot of money and wins a social position that puts him above the kind of ordinary criticism that most of us endure daily.

Good friends will tell us when our clothes are too gaudy that they don’t flatter us.  That happens because we’re not iconic rock stars.  No one told Elvis that it was absurd to wear jewel-studded suits and enough bling to make Liberace blush.  No one even whispered that in so heavy a regalia he might come off gay — perhaps because Elvis carried himself with an unmistakable heterosexual cruising swagger, procreated with Priscilla, and never, ever lost screaming female fans.  That said, if your average straight man, even if he were handsome in the way Elvis Presley was undeniably handsome, were to show up at a party rattling, jangling with jewelry the way Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie remembers him from her early childhood, he would be met by the howling laughter of his best friends.

Nobody ever laughed at Elvis, at least not to his face.  They also didn’t stop his pill-popping, question his excuses for not attending church but only watching Rex Humbard on television.Perhaps if someone had said to him that loving thing, so common in New York City, so rare in Memphis, apparently — “What are you, stupid?  What’s wrong with you?  Have you lost your mind?”  — He might have survived his uncensored excesses.

People who knew him really did love Elvis.  Over and over again, in documentary after documentary, colleagues remember a soft-spoken, almost-shy man who had the fortune and the misfortune of a great musical range, a handsome face, a smoldering sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to phrase a song so that an audience would never want to hear it any other way again — this gift of his, the thing that made Elvis Elvis and nobody else — without a genius for money, for negotiation, for contextualizing his fame and success in a larger picture of a more complex world.  As a result, he made dumb decisions, and nobody somehow dared tell him that despite the jumpsuits studded with semi-precious stones, the emperor often had no clothes.

He took his money, overspent for a medium-sized house, and with the ministrations of a wife with no decorating sense at all, overspent for some of the tackiest furnishings the world has ever seen, bar none.  The living room with its wall-length mirrors and incongruous peacock stained glass panels screams a dollar amount without even the sense one gets at Versailles — that the rococo gilding has produced a unified effect.  Here, in Graceland, where the shiny things are  disjunctive, the living room announces as one enters the house  that the occupants are nouveau riche, uncultured, and somewhat spiritually adrift.

I was at Graceland a few days before Elvis’ birthday, an anniversary still celebrated by an unyielding group of faithful fans, painting a hagiographic picture of the man buried out by the kidney-shaped swimming pool, complete with miraculous sightings of “The King.”  In his tacky living room, there was one of those all-white tinsel Christmas trees with blue balls on it — something from which I doubt Elvis ever suffered, given these hysterical fans throwing themselves at him non-stop.  To his credit, Elvis would not allow his fans to call him “The King” to his face, even once refusing to sing when a group of them held up a large sign that proclaimed him king.

Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not Jesus.

“Jesus is the King,” He said, to his credit.

The fans, though, never stopped trying to grab off a piece of him in every sense of the expression, as if he were the Cross, a type of shroud, a holy relic of an unnamed mystery.

The worst by far of all the rooms on public display at this shrine to the uncanonized Southern Baptist saint is the Jungle Room.

Both the ceilings and the floors are carpeted in avocado green.  The expensive furniture is artificially wrought to look rustic — think of Marie Antoinette’s hameau, only less quaint, more horribly, unspeakably tacky.

Elvis used to entertain here, and apparently, nobody dared stage an intervention for him in it, neither for the drugs, nor for the style.  He recorded a later song in the room.  His voice might have bounced off the walls of this monstrosity, but it is a shame now, and shame on us, all of us, for not stepping in and dissuading him on any count of his over-reaching.

A man with gifts without genius, a man with money without sense of how best to create a lovely home for himself or to clothe himself in dignity with it — this man is a perfect allegorical figure for the prosperous but often lost United States of America.  We are still too much of a superpower for those close to us to dare tell us to stop with the fries and the pills that affect our serotonin levels.  Our flashy guns and our flashy war planes — no one told us in a way we have listened to or obeyed that we should buy an education for ourselves instead.

Elvis owned three large televisions — one for each major network — but not one book, not one.

We have gifts, we citizens of Graceland, but we are not as good at everything as we think we are or that we wish we were.  We love God, but we don’t act like penitents.  We are inventive, but more often than not, we are just plain tacky.

Because I have visited Graceland, entered the Jungle Room, and because I, too, remained silent in the wake of its evidence of one bad decision after another, I am an American now, like any other.  Like Peter betrayed Christ, I, too, have betrayed Elvis in that I secretly thrill as much at his emptiness as at his whole, rich voice, a voice that made every song into a hymn, a private confession of adoration, even though the lines were out the door at the tacky house on Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandising was always in season, even at a time when penitents remember the poor, not the wealthy.

This is not Elvis’ fault.  It is ours.  With our culture, we crucified him, and we are hypocrites, all, who visit to gawk or even just to hear the unending plea to love him tender.  His death is the consequence of our excesses and indifference to those who need the truth from us.  In an era of global warming, of war, of closed American factories and foreclosed American houses decorated in better taste than this one, he is the symbolic but ineffective expiation of our wrong-doing.

Elvis has stopped singing.  Jesus is the King.  May He have mercy on America.

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