Thursday, July 16, 2015

Flannery O’Connor: Fashionista or Frump?

This spring I was granted access to some of Flannery O’Connor’s personal artifacts for an Independent Research Study sponsored by Georgia College’s Graduate Creative Writing Program. These artifacts became the basis of Andalusia’s current exhibition: Flannery and Fashion at Mid-Century.

My job was to sift through the clothing in the chifferobe that stands in Flannery’s bedroom. No one knows who left the clothing there, or why it remained after other personal items were taken by their rightful heirs. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for as I cataloged and inventoried each of the 56 items in the chifferobe, but I was fascinated by any clues that might offer up information about how this brilliant writer lived.

Like so many others, I have been enchanted by Flannery’s vision of the Deep South, which seems to come to life at Andalusia Farm. It’s a world where a phony Bible salesman steals prosthetic legs and a convict shoots a little old grandmother point blank. It’s a world rife with paradox, simultaneously comic and tragic, sublime and damned that mirrors the paradoxes I found when I tried to answer the question:

“What did Flannery think about fashion?”

My initial response: She didn’t give a hoot about fashion, did she? When O’Connor was a student at Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College), she published a satirical piece entitled “Fashion’s Perfect Medium” in the school literary magazine, The Corinthian. It poked fun at faddish mid-1940s fashions her classmates wore: oversized sweaters, long strands of knotted pearls, and reversible rain coats. Reading the piece, one gets the sense that O’Connor understands fashion trends quite well but is above the frivolity of it all.

After reading Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Connor, in which he paints Flannery as a dowdy homebody after several callers to Andalusia reported O’Connor received them wearing dungarees, an oversized button-down, and clunky loafers, I came to a similar conclusion. O’Connor devoted her time to more important literary, philosophical, and theological pursuits to care about what duds she wore.

However, other evidence suggests O’Connor, at least earlier in her life, may have been a clotheshorse—and having been brought up to be a Southern lady—cared about her appearance and wearing proper attire. While in Iowa City attending graduate school, O’Connor wrote daily letters home to her mother, Regina. In nearly every letter O’Connor discusses her concerns over clothing: mending, laundering, switching ugly buttons for prettier ones, taking clothing shopping exhibitions to Cedar Rapids with her friends, and thanking her mother for sending clothing that was trendy. While at the writer’s colony, Yaddo, O’Connor writes in a letter home about buying a new, blue jacket because the director, Elizabeth Ames, wanted her guests to dress formally for dinner. So even if O’Connor didn’t admit to caring about fashion per se, she did at least care about decorum.

As for the items in the chifferobe, the most important was a navy-blue cotton dress worn by O’Connor. The sleeveless dress with a fitted bodice with pin-tucking, a fitted waist with full pleated skirt, and matching lace on both bodice and at hemline, was at the height of 1950s trends. O’Connor wore this dress for an interview and photoshoot The Atlanta Journal Constitution published in July of 1962, just before the 10th anniversary reissue of Wise Blood, O’Connor’s first novel.

Other notable pieces from the chifferobe also reflect a smart sense of style. O’Connor favored clothing the color of her beloved peacocks. Most of the 12 dresses, 5 blouses, 5 silk scarves, 3 hats, and 2 pairs of gloves are either blue, green, teal, or some combination of these colors. I found 12 belts, many which were fabric-covered to match a particular dress, another trend of the 50s. There was also a collection of underthings: slips, panties, a garter-belt, dress-shields (some that had been well used), and bras (size 36 if you’re curious).

Every writer embodies a little part of every character they write, and ultimately, I think O’Connor was both like the Grandmother from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—capable of donning gloves and hat so people would know she was a lady—and like Joy/Hulga from “Good Country People,” too concerned with her intellectual life to care if people saw her wearing beat up loafers and shapeless sweatshirts two sizes too big.

Photo by Joe McTyre for the AJC in 1962.

-- Sarah K. Lenz is a recent MFA graduate of O’Connor’s alma mater. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Colorado Review, Fourth River, South Dakota Review, and New Letters among others. Her essay, “Lightning Flowers,” was named a Notable Essay of 2014 in Best American. She lives in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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