The challenge on Project Runway Episode 9 “Let’s Do Brunch” was to create a look for “the modern Southern woman”. Honestly, I wish that was the worst of it. Creating a look specifically for a Southern woman, as if the clothes she wears are completely different than those of people anywhere else in the country, is bad enough, but that is not the worst of what I witnessed in that episode or of what I hear in every day life, so here we go.
I was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. For 8 years, I attended one of 82 public schools and for 4 years, one of 21 private schools in Madison County. Every day, I brushed my full set of teeth and got ready for school in my bathroom which was conveniently located inside my house. My mother drove me to school in a car and I walked, with shoes on my feet, into the multi-roomed, multi-storied, building where I learned to read and write and do math. I learned about history and science and literature. I went to museums and the Theatre and sometimes the movin’ picture show. I was even friends with people who were not my race or ethnicity. I did not know everyone in my city of over 160,000. I did not live on a farm. I did not listen solely to country music. Since graduating college, (I got mah-self one-a those fancy ed-ju-mah-cashuns) I have lived in Memphis, Chicago, Huntsville again, and currently, California. I have never in my life gotten more ignorant questions about the South than in the two years that I have lived in Los Angeles.
When a person asks me where I am from, I proudly answer, “I am from Alabama.” Often, the person will repeat “Alabama” back to me with, what I am sure they imagine to be a redneck accent. This is the point at which I decide this person is ignorant and the look I give him or her indicates such. About 1 time out of 10, the person will feel ashamed and I will warm back up, but the other 9 times, the person seems as proud of their hilarious “joke” as I am when I drive up to Manhattan Beach Studios and say, “I’m here for ‘Revenge’…the TV show, not to get payback on anyone hahahahaha.” like I have not heard their little “joke” at least once a week for the past 2+ years. Then this person usually says, “I can tell you’re from Alabama because of your accent.” Oh, CAN YOU?? Because my accent is a Tennessee accent like my Mama’s which is different from an Alabama accent, so excellent work, Henry Higgins. Next you wanna guess which street I grew up on because you’re really on a roll, now buy a pretty flower from the lady and get outta here, would ya?
“Listen, Pickering. An Alabama girl with a Tennessee influence. If I had to guess, I’d say she is from Morning View Drive, North of the Eagle house.”
The most common question I am asked is, “Alabama? Moving to LA must have been a culture shock, huh?” Part of me wants to say, “Gah-lee, it shore wuz. I ain’t never been on a hah-way before and I had no idear there wuz cities by an oshun!” Instead, I find myself explaining that I am from one of the largest cities in Alabama and that Huntsville is home to more rocket scientist per capita than any other city in the world and that Chelsea Clinton and Blossom went to Space Camp at our US Space and Rocket Center which is also where they shot the 1986 classic “Space Camp” AND where you could get Dippin’ Dots as early as 1991 when the only other place you could get them nearby was Opryland so suck it. I say all of that as if being from Huntsville makes me better somehow. I mean, it does, because Huntsville is the best place I know of, but she doesn’t need me to defend her just as the rest of the South doesn’t need me to defend her to people who don’t have the sense that God gave a billygoat. Because, sure, the way things go in Huntsville is different from the way things go in LA which is different from the way things go in New York which is different from Chicago. Huntsville is even different than Decatur or Athens or Gurley which are only about 20 miles away. Yes, cultures vary, but I have yet to come across a place in these United States that shocks me. I mean, I have a TV. I watch the news. I know what other places are like without having gone there and ultimately, we’re all on planet Earth. We all eat through our mouths and do the “other thing” out of the “other end” (I’m talking about a #2) (out of a b-u-t-t) I fail to see the VAST difference in it all. When I expressed this sentiment to one “gentleman” recently, he responded with, “Yeah, I guess there are stupid people everywhere.” Instead of yelling at him, “So your assumption was that Alabama is full of nothing but stupid people?!” I just gestured toward him and said, “Case in point.” He didn’t get it.
You are putting that taco WHERE? Man, Californians eat strangely.
The worst thing anyone has said to me about the South goes like this: I showed my i.d. to a cashier at Trader Joe’s and he says, “Alabama? They hang black people there, don’t they?” EXCUSE ME?? You cannot say that to a person! I mean, how am I supposed to respond to that? “Well, yeah, but we always burn a cross in their front yard to warn ‘em first”? There is no denying our country’s history with racism, especially in the South. Segregation and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement was abominable and will forever be a stain on the South’s history. Race relations are certainly not perfect, but I have witnessed racism and bigotry everywhere from NYC to Chicago to Memphis to LA. Never in the Northwest or Northeast though. They’re cool. In fact, I have witnessed racism more here in Southern California, especially against Latinos, than in the Southern United States. Maybe that is because, due to my job, I am forced to interact with people I wouldn’t normally interact with, where as back home, I chose to surround myself with people who were not racist and not bigoted and had no tolerance for either. Of course, the fact that racism happens everywhere does NOT excuse it, but perhaps work to fix the problem in your own neighborhood instead of doing nothing but pointing fingers at other neighborhoods. And you cannot assume things about an entire region of people based upon how a small ignorant group acts, or worse, based upon how an ignorant group acted 50 and 60 years ago.
Which brings me to: there is an assumption about the South that we are stuck in time somewhere between ”The Andy Griffith Show” and “Fried Green Tomatoes”. I often work on the TV show “Hart of Dixie” which takes place in present day Bluebell, Alabama not a real place. The wardrobe notes for this show went, “This scene takes place at Christmas, but bring summer dresses, sleeveless, and short sleeves because it never gets cold in Alabama.” Okay. Well, that should keep my family warm in the middle of March when a snow storm knocks out power lines and they have no heat for 3 days in 30 degree weather thank you. When I get to set, the hair people, before giving me a 50’s updo, ask me, “How do people in Alabama wear their hair?” I want to say, “Gosh, depends on which hairdresser they go to. See, we only have the 2 beauticians and one barber in the whole state, so if you go to Judy you get the look that I’m sportin’, but Pam? Now, Pam only does bangs so it just depends on who comes through town on haircuttin’ day. Now, ol Floyd just give the men a trim and send ‘em on their way with a tin of Dapper Dan.”
One day on “Hart of Dixie”, the whole town was putting on a Gilbert & Sullivan revue. I have always wondered about TV shows when the whole town is involved in a production or concert of some sort, who comes to see it? If the whole town is performing, do they bus in all the residents from the next town over to be the audience or what? Anyway, I was all done up in my Victorian garb when I walked past a girl in a pirate outfit. She looked at me and said, “Is that really how people dress in Alabama?” I told her, “Just the rich people dress like this. The poor people dress like pirates.” Ignorant.
Back to the “Modern Southern Lady” Project Runway, where one of the designers with straight up Ronald McDonald red hair asked Ken, who is from Birmingham, Alabama how Southern girls wear their hair. Ken goes, “Like normal girls.” The Ronald McDonald head said he thought we all wore our hair like they did in “Steel Magnolias”. For crying out loud. None of the designers, however, were as bad as Helen. Helen begins the challenge by saying with disdain, “I do not design for the modern Southern woman.” She decides to make a dress for a girl who is going to a cotillion because, “That’s, like, a thing, right Ken? In the South? Not just something I’ve seen in, like, movies?” Ken just rolled his eyes. The result is a neck to ankle sleeveless sack in the most offensive sunshine yellow you can think of, entirely covered by a white flower patterned lace, because “What Southern Belle wouldn’t want a sunflower yellow dress?” The answer is all of them over the age of 8, Helen. She later tells Tim Gunn (the epitome of manners and grace) that her inspiration was “like, fresh, outdoors at a dinner party, glass of champagne, or whatever they drink in the South…” Tim interrupts, telling her that he’s sure they have champagne in the South and he was right, Helen. Our champagne is REAL fancy too. Uncle Reedus makes it in the warshtub instead of the toirlet like he does just reg’lar wine. Seriously, that girl is dumber than a box of wet hair.
“And with $1,000, Cherie is today’s big Jeopardy winner!”
I am not trying to disparage Project Runway. I love the show. I love Tim Gunn. I love Heidi Klum. I have a GIANT crush on season 12 designer Justin LeBlanc. (Hey, Justin, I read Highlights Magazine as a child so I know the entire alphabet in sign language) I just think it is a little silly to think that the South is so wildly different from any other place in America. Especially in this day and age when a little Podunk, ain’t never been nowhere nor seen nothin’ Southern girl can move all the way from Aleeebama ou’chere to Cali-FOR-ni-ay. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, the South is not one giant trailer park with nary a large urban area to be found. Alabama has Birmingham and Huntsville (256!), Tennessee has Memphis and Nashville, Georgia has Atlanta and beautiful Savannah, Mississippi has…well, let’s leave Mississippi out of this. Of course Alabama also has many teeny tiny towns with one stop light and no street signs, but I am willing to bet that just about every single state in America has the same. Yes, there are things that (I hope) will always be quintessentially Southern. Sweet tea, porch swings, lightening bugs, College Football National Championships, butter. And there are stereotypes that will probably never go away, such as Southern people are charming, drive trucks, and cook with butter. But those stereotypes do not hold true across the board anymore than ALL people from LA are vegan, flaky, and maniac drivers or everyone from New Jersey is orange. I think we Southerners, we Americans, we Humans are all the same in that we are all different. So, you can try to design a look for the modern Southern woman, Project Runway, but you’re gonna need some luck. There are 4 modern Southern women in my family, and not one of us has even close to the same style. But I can tell you this, none of us would wear that picnic tablecloth dress y’all picked as the winner. As Ken so eloquently put it, “Livin’ in the South, no one will wear this dress. It looks like the dress that Harriet Tubman wore after she received her freedom.” Like I said, I love Heidi, but Ken was right. This Southern girl would rather have a dress she can pair with motorcycle boots and leather jacket. But, hey, that’s just me.