Flannery O’Connor died 51 years ago today.
Her legacy can teach us a lot about Southern Gothic literature, morality and Catholicism, and, believe it or not, she can teach us a thing or two about fashion.
Take her popular short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Written in the perspective of a grandmother, a family travels from Atlanta to Florida.
“The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”
“There’s an element of judgment [in the story]. Women who are wearing slacks, maybe they were slackers? You’re not quite proper; you’re not quite a lady,” said Elizabeth Wylie, the executive director at Andalusia Farms in Milledgeville. O’Connor lived at Andalusia after she was diagnosed with lupus in 1951 until her death in 1964.
Wylie continued, “At mid-century, there was sort of a shift in women’s clothing and the tolerance for women wearing slacks. That was a new thing.”
Andalusia Farms, which is now a tribute site to O’Connor, currently has an exhibit called “Flannery and Fashion at Mid-Century,” which will run until Nov. 1.
In the mid-20th century, slacks were not merely pieces of clothing. Slacks represented the modern woman. They were edgy, and, for the traditional men and women of the time, they were a major faux pas and a provocative transgression against what a woman should be.
O’Connor was pro-slacks. For one, slacks allowed additional mobility during her illness, but O’Connor also captured the spirit of the modern woman.
She hated ruffled curtains. She also drank beer. In college, she drew satirical cartoons in the school newspaper where she made fun of fashion trends.
“As her celebrity grew, she had a lot of visitors to the farm, and people report that she often showed up in dungarees, which was another word for jeans,” Wylie said.
O’Connor’s mother was a great seamstress, and her mother made much of O’Connor wardrobe when she returned to Andalusia after her lupus diagnosis.
One of the curators at Andalusia recently published a blog post that asked, was O’Connor a frump or a fashionista? True, she wore jeans, but in letters to her mother when O’Connor was in grad school in Iowa, she did talk about her own fashion choices.
Wylie said, “She wrote to her mother about, oh, she bought a sweater for 3.98 on sale, and it was really cute, but I don’t like the buttons. Will you send me some replacement buttons?”
As a modern woman, O’Connor knew that clothes meant something about the person who wore them, as seen in what she wrote.
“Clothing was a big part of her writing, and the ways in which she described characters was through their clothes,” Wylie said.
O’Connor is considered one of the most important American authors, but if you are unconvinced by her relationship to fashion, at least remember what the grandmother suggested in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” When traveling, dress your best in case you end up in a ditch on the side of the road.