Written by Ted Ownby and Becca Walton
Situated at the intersection of necessity and creativity, southern fashion lets us ask questions about place and historical context, power, and identity. Every garment has a designer, maker, wearer, and viewer, and we can study all of them.
We can tell local stories about designers and seamstresses, farmers and factory workers. At the same time, we can see the South’s centuries-long engagement with a global economy through one garment, with cotton harvested by enslaved laborers in Mississippi, milled in Massachusetts or Manchester, designed with influence from Parisian tastemakers, and sold in the South by Jewish immigrant merchants.
It isn’t clear where to start, and that’s exciting. The term “southern fashion” doesn’t seem to be clearly defined by terms or limits, so we may not need to spend energy overturning conventional wisdoms. Do we start with creative reuse, with Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” or with Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain dress? Do we start with osnaburg, the so-called “negro cloth” of the 19th century, or with farm families wearing garments cut from the same cloth, or with women who did sewing every day but Sunday?
Do we start with religion, with some groups rejecting fashions as ostentatious while others hoped to give their best to God? Or with music, where some performers display ties to their communities and others dramatize their escape from them? Or immigrants? Or climate? Do we start with regional identities, with people from the South facing questions from non-southerners about whether their families wear shoes, or with southern fashion designers facing questions of why they don’t live and work where designers are “supposed” to live?
Written to commemorate Shindig Six. Inspired by the forthcoming book on fashion in the South, coedited by Ted Ownby and Becca Walton of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, the parent organization of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Illustration by Emily E. Wallace.
Ted M. Ownby is Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and a hero of mine.
P.S.: Thank you to John T. Edge for this gift. And to Ted and John T. for the gift of words…they’ve kept me going this week.