Decoding the Southern belle: "I have always thought of Southern belles as a super-elite task force of lethally disciplined femininity"

Would being around Southern women inspire me into undergoing some kind of Eliza Doolittle–style transformation?

Published September 7, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind"   (MGM)
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" (MGM)

Excerpted from "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style"

As God as my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. I will lie, steal, cheat, or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again. — Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind

Nothing has been more complicated or difficult for me to wrap my head around and write about than the sartorial codes of the Southern belle.

I grew up in the Bay Area, brain-laundered by feminism. My mother always called excessively feminine women “Uncle Toms.” I grew up snickering at French manicures and Cosmopolitan magazine; I thought they represented the kind of training that advanced risible sluts gave to up-and-coming risible sluts.

On some level, I thought, there was a fundamental sameness between boys and girls. But this has led me to a world of dashed hopes and bruised expectations, because it is basically wrong.

Southern women have never suffered from these coastal delusions. They have always known that men are Not Like Women. They don’t treat men like equals; they treat men like men. They know they’re not interacting as one human mind to another, but assembling, in each conversation, a ballet of gesticulations, a music of pleasant speech—a web of evolutionary biology–savvy, subconscious trigger points designed to charm, delight, amuse, and ensnare.

I always thought such blatantly deployed feminine finesse was . . . lying, essentially. I thought manipulating people to get what you wanted was evil. I always thought that excessively performative femininity was a kind of black magic.

Since Miami, I had become self-conscious about my own fashion handicaps. After several years as a fashion critic, I firmly believed that the best clothing inspires fear. I had succumbed to a regrettable affection for shiny black things with superfluous zippers. After growing up an uncouth, anti-establishment person informed by punk rock and drag queens, I had let these tendencies ferment in New York unto the point where I was dressing like I just got deported from the sadomasochistic Death Star.

Before departing for points even deeper South, I was beginning to realize, having been pulling forty for some time, that I had never been taught—and in fact had deliberately avoided learning—all those subtle arts and maneuvers of feminine charm, finesse, and tact.

Lately, when reflecting upon my abysmal romantic track record, I had been questioning the intelligence of avoiding these skills that might make me a more viable female. I felt I was being perceived as fairly frightening to all but the most adventurous and vainglorious (read: sociopathic) males. Architecturally, fashion had become a moat that was keeping most people at a distance from me, and I was feeling like I didn’t know how to lower the drawbridge anymore, even if I wanted to. I wanted to learn how to have the option of being softer—if this was possible.

I hoped that being around Southern women might inspire me into undergoing some kind of Eliza Doolittle–style transformation. I have always thought of Southern belles as a super-elite task force of lethally disciplined femininity—like the Spartans. In my experience, they were wicked-smart academics who also amplied and honed their natural beauty, grace, and charm until they, too, were advanced weaponry. I recognized them as being exceptionally well-versed in all of the codebreaking and covert psychological operations necessary for competitive, ruthless, and dead-serious sexual combat.

I figured I could probably use their help.

Across the aisle on my plane to Birmingham (my first trip to Alabama) was an ageless woman, hovering in a time lock somewhere between fifty-eight and seventy-eight. Her curls might have been carved from cinnabar. Full face of precisely applied “natural” makeup, bright gems, gold jewelry, spangled zebra-print shirt.

I leaned over. “Ma’am, I am a fashion writer, and I must ask: how does someone become as lovely as you are?”

She lit up like a Christmas window. “Thank kyew!” she twinkled, with the graciously tilted eyes and beauty-pageant smile of a woman who has heard that compliment her entire life. “Well, my grandmother is turning a hundred this week. She was raised that way, and she raised my mother that way, and my mother raised me.”

Her warm, trilling voice, tuberose perfume, and swirling diamonds all harmonized into a beguiling, welcoming spectacle, like a hazy waterfall soundtracked by Mantovani’s Cascading Strings. Her style-text spoke to me of a wholly absorbing domestic life. The gumball-sized grey pearl, I guessed, was her silver anniversary present from her husband. Her imperturbable hair gave me visions of the right napkin rings and monogrammed towel sets. It occurred to me that she wasn’t just wearing her house—she was her house. Just as her mother had once lived inside her grandmother/house, she had lived inside her mother/house—a generational chain of nesting wooden dolls.

If her hands were her living room, her expert charm was the ultimate set of blackout drapes. I had no idea, while she spoke, if she was actually being sweet to me. She giggled so wickedly with her companion a minute later, I had to wonder.

* * *

 “Finesse. This is the word you need to meditate on. Finesse is the thing you need to cultivate,” advised my longtime friend Dirty Bobby as we dined in Birmingham’s Chez Fon Fon, a chic eatery full of overweight white men in at-front khakis and button-up blue checked shirts on dates with hyper-fit, significantly younger women with abundant hair, over-perfect posture, and important handbags. Dirty Bobby had lived around the West Coast for years before finally returning to his roots in Alabama to become, like his daddy, a Southern patriarch. Dirty Bobby was extremely worried that I would offend his Southern people by being my usual brash and tactless self (urbane, ADHD types like myself having the unfortunate social handicap of saying exactly what we mean).

“We got a good thing going on here. Have you ever heard the term ‘laughing like a loon’? I hang out with surgeons on lakes that have actual loons laughing. If you fuck it up for me, I’ll have to come to New York and break your kneecaps.”

“Seriously,” he said. “The South is very conservative. Let’s put it this way—we still talk about the Civil War.” (Subtext: we may have been friends for half our lives, but here you keep your Yankee shit off my porch.)

I summarized, for Dirty Bobby, the narrative I’d been told about Southern women at the Kentucky Derby. To wit: Southern belles get top-shelf educations, mainly in pursuit of a MRS degree—land a husband, redecorate, and have kids. When the husband cheats, they get law degrees, then expertly gouge their husbands in legendarily brutal divorces.

“Yes, but women all over do that,” said Dirty Bobby.

Actually, no.

I had never known a single woman in LA, SF, or NYC who had openly aspired to a life of motherly leisure. The women I knew who got sterling degrees from pedigreed universities did it because they wanted real careers. Children were a brief hiatus in their otherwise unrelenting attack on the professional world. Divorces were usually resolved as early and as amicably as possible. Men, especially ex-husbands, rarely occupied the lion’s share of their attention.

The sexual politics of the South—as manifest in the way the ladies still dress (and the way they non-ironically call themselves “ladies”)—all seemed to fall voluntarily into submission to the aristocratic patriarchy, the old one belonging to the myth of an antebellum Eden from which Southerners were so rudely expelled. The feminist theorist Judith Butler described Southern belles as participating in a “regulatory fiction” of gender performance, which upholds the social status quo. Southern social codes are heavily colored by the Old Southern tradition of hospitality. The noble lady is the beautiful home; the chaste daughter is its vulnerability; the honorable father is their protector. The beautiful, well-bred, educated Southern belle, corseted by diets and hobbled by heels, pollenates with alluring cues of frailty, that she may be answered by the gallant ministrations of a Southern gentleman.

“There’s a delicate ballet that happens here,” my new BFF Dr. Julie Steward explained over cocktails at my hotel bar, the next night. Dr. Steward, a gorgeous blonde with big nerdy glasses, is a literary theory professor and former Future Farmers of America beauty queen whom I was fortunate to connect with through mutual friends. She had grown up in rural Texas and relocated to Alabama—not as easy a transition as one might think. She had endured no small dose of culture shock. “Texans are not Southerners,” she clarified. “It took me a year to figure out that men always open the door for you.

"Any door. Men you don’t know. A man needs to open that door for you.” Southern belles, Julie explained, had a different approach to feminine power: “Ixnay on eminist-fay. That’s the f-word,” she continued. “If women like us aren’t using our femininity strategically [Belles think], we just aren’t even being smart. Southern women are not going to have power in the overt ways—they have it in covert ways. It’s not like they reject the idea of female accomplishment; it’s that they’ve seen feminism in a utilitarian way, as not being a productive means of getting what they want.

“Why do you and I reject that?” she asked, quite seriously.

We looked at each other in silence. I was asking myself the same question.

The next day, looking at clothes in a quaint row of retail shops, I stopped in front of a window display of a little boutique that seemed fashion-forward for the South—I was charmed by a cheerleader dress that someone had made out of butcher paper. That was how I met the owner, Brittany Hartwell, the Southern belle who, in my opinion, came to represent the best balance of all possible feminine worlds in that fretful fashion region: she is a sassy, funny, cool, self-actualized chick who also happens to have been raised to be a real, honest-to-Christmas Southern belle.

In grammar school, Brittany told me over cocktails with Dr. Steward, she had been taught etiquette, charm, and how to give a camera the best possible smile by a glamorous Sunday school teacher. In high school, she was chosen to be a Hoover Belle, which is a serious honor in Alabama; girls selected for their loveliness and gracious behavior are allowed to stand prettily around public and civic events in hoop skirts and sun hats.

Southern belles, I commented, all seemed to want to find their Rhett Butler.

“The girls around here all want to marry their high school sweetheart and move to Mountain Brook,” Brittany agreed.

Mountain Brook—locally known as the Tiny Kingdom—is Birmingham’s wealthiest enclave. (It is perhaps best known for being the home of Natalee Holloway, a teenage blonde who was murdered in Aruba by a privileged young European man named Joran van der Sloot.)

What had changed the trajectory of Brittany’s life, I learned, was that she had survived the ultimate ego-death of a Southern belle—a broken engagement to her high-school sweetheart. The devastating impact of this, in the South, really can’t be overstated.

Every American parent I know of a toddler-age girl child has had to fret over what is casually known as “the Disney princess thing.” There is a social and consumer conditioning that is Trojan-horsed into girl children through the princess—the spangly pink dress is a gateway dress that leads to Barbie clothes. Barbie begets prom dresses, then harder stuff, especially in the South: cotillion formals or beauty pageant gowns. But encoded in every party dress (and it’s really all the same dress) is the same unspoken goal: marriage to the handsome prince, living happily ever after in the castle on the hill, in the Tiny Kingdom.

Down South, you are supposed to marry your high school boyfriend. That is the proper narrative. If your life doesn’t work out that way, you are essentially exiled from the herd.

Brittany, thus ostracized, was forced to evolve. She went to a different school, where she found two real and sustainable passions: her husband, Brandon—an exceptionally smart, good-looking guy—and the inspiration for her boutique: eco-fashion.

Ms. Hartwell had opened Molly Green to introduce the ladies of Birmingham to clothes manufactured in local and/or otherwise sustainable ways. Molly Green, Brittany said, was an act of love: she wanted to share her hard-won joys and discoveries with her Southern sisters, and open up a whole new direction for Southern femininity. However, she was struggling to find her audience, due to the strict conformity of local ladies and the rules of their sartorial tribe.

“It’s hard for Southern women to change styles,” Brittany sighed. “People just aren’t malleable in the South.”

Dr. Julie Steward assessed local women’s clothing in the area as being highly based on SEC football. Brittany emphatically agreed. “The boutiques I connect with on Facebook are all asking, ‘Do you have your game-day outfit?’”

“Game-day outfits” are, in fact, so incredibly important to the Southern female wardrobe that I was compelled to drive with a photographer friend Brinky to Oxford, Mississippi, to girl-watch after the first home game at Ole Miss, “the Harvard of the South.”

Hugh Hefner has proclaimed that there are more beautiful girls on the Ole Miss campus than anywhere else. There did seem to be a glut of that particular type of beauty—Gattaca-level triumphs of all-American eugenics: button-nose blondes with long butterscotch legs, waist-length ironed Barbie hair, guileless baby-blue eyes. Most were wearing mini sundresses in Easter egg colors, with pearls. A few were, indeed, wearing padded shoulder minidress versions of the team football jersey.


If Brittany was Birmingham’s Scarlett O’Hara—the self-sufficient woman—Amy Bailey is its Melanie Wilkes.

Miss Mellie in Gone with the Wind is everything a Southern belle is supposed to be: so excruciatingly well-bred that there is no ugliness in her to be found, in any corner of her home or her psyche. She is the loving ideal—grace, elegance, kindness, chastity, selessness. She performs herself with effortless, ceaseless prettiness, and no hellfire. All is softness and hospitality—and a certain learned helplessness and amplied frailty which forces men to carry her luggage. Miss Mellie never wags anything but a smiling, loving, maternal finger at men, as if their transgressions were some adorably precocious thing done by her own toddler son.

Back in Birmingham, a hurricane was raging; water killed all the electricity in the hotel, and turned the commercial streets into little brown rivers. I brought Brinky along to meet Amy Bailey—a society It Girl around Atlanta and Birmingham who runs an influential fashion blog. She was adorable, scampering in from the rain in her high-heeled boots. She peeled off a white trench coat to reveal little jean shorts and a flesh-colored silk blouse with a navy blue bra underneath. She was clearly proud of her décolletage—quite ample for such a slim young lady. I detected vocal coaching in the musicality of her laugh; she confessed she’d had training for both singing and television. She had participated in “beauty walks,” and she could sing. She was in all ways a perfect feminine ornament, designed to be loved, cherished, and admired.

Some women get whatever they want all the time, and know how to get away with it.

In an open-handed demonstration of feminine wiles, in Gone with the Wind, Scarlett smirks to herself before putting the new hat Rhett Butler has brought her from Paris on backward, in order to let Rhett show her how to wear it—she allows herself to be scolded by him as he ties the satin bow under her chin. It makes Rhett feel capable, necessary.

I never thought that kind of shit would actually work with real men, which was why I was agog when Amy delicately leaned against Brinky’s shoulder and asked him how to use some function of her own iPhone (and perhaps give him a better view of her lovely blouse).

Right, I sat there thinking. Like he’s going to believe that this smart girl, who runs her own fashion website, doesn’t know how to use her own phone. I almost laughed out loud, until I saw that it was working. Brinky couldn’t help himself. He’d taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker, and was compulsively jabbering instructions at her like an Apple Store Genius. Amy had handily tied him up in a big pink ribbon and had him chuckering like a turtledove against her shoulder within three minutes of arrival. It was formidable.

God, I realized (for the eighty-zillionth time in my life). Playing dumb swans right past men’s conscious/intellectual defenses, as lethally as psychological depth-marketing. Amy had tipped Brinky’s hat brim down and made all the marbles roll out of his brain and down the front of her blouse, just like that. What may look like the most artless connivance to other women sure as shit wraps men around a girl’s finger. It’s awful to watch; the men look so dumb when they fall for it, but God—they always fall for it.

There is a point at which you realize, with enormous dismay, that men do not respect your femininity unless you are manipulating them with it.

A few rounds of drinks happened, like they do in the South. Amy, being very sweetly candid, showed me a picture of her handsome husband, confiding (with laudable candor and real vulnerability) that they had recently separated. He was dressed just like the Ole Miss wolves in their Harvard sheepskin, preppy camouflage.

She related an anecdote about her toddler-age little girl. They had been at a wishing well, and Amy had taught her daughter to throw a coin in and make a wish. She asked her daughter what she had wished for.

“And she said, ‘Mommy, I want to find my prince!’ and I said, ‘Oh, honey . . .’” Amy’s eyes welled with real tears. “‘I hope you can think of other wishes besides that.’ ”

The hurricane was still raging outside when we finally left the restaurant. She invited Brinky and me to her apartment for a nightcap, which we declined. It was late, and I couldn’t drink anymore. The photographer and I unchivalrously watched lovely Amy toddle home to her toddler alone after midnight, in the rain, under emergency streetlights, in her high, high heels, while I punched him in the arm and teased him for going Full Dunce around a pretty girl (which, like any red-blooded American male, he naturally and vehemently denied). 

Excerpted from "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style" by Cintra Wilson. Copyright © 2015 by Cintra Wilson. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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