As someone who grew up in the south, I was never able to embrace the eternal summers. Yet, there is an undeniable verdant beauty that sprouts in summer here that begs to be dramaticized in some Twainian story from long ago. Remnants of verdurous life from summer still remained when I went to Tennessee for a short vacation two weeks ago. It inspired me to re-watch one of my favorite films, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Known for its old time southern charm, the film is budding with stunning bucolic scenery and fashion.
The film opens with the sweetest elderly woman in a nursing home who spots an unsuspecting passerby in the lobby, Evelyn. Ninny skillfully captivates Evelyn with stories from her past and transports us to a hundred or so years backwards in time. The scenery transforms from a waiting lobby to a plantation style home surrounded by trees and little girls in white dresses. Brace yourself for everything southern, from church scenes to barbeques.
The scenes of her recollections from 107 years ago illustrate a loving, warm, albeit hectic home environment. The Threadgoode family is getting ready for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Leona. Yet, even as the head matriarch readies the family for the event, it’s sprinkled with confectionary toppings such as, “honey” and “sweetheart” in a signature lackadaisical southern accent.
Other remnants of old world charm is the buzzing energy of an extended family in a large home prepping for a large family event. The older brother, Buddy, arrives late to the preparations after swinging across nearby train tracks to get home. He also displays cultural habits of his time when he courts Ruth with a parasol and tall tales.
However much I love this film for it’s heart warming setting, there was something that my growing expertise demanded. I had to research the accuracy of the films costumes, for better or for worse.
Ninny’s first featured flashback is prefaced with her providing some very useful information for me: “The war had just ended. You know, the great one”, making it 1918 at Leona’s wedding. The late 1910s were an interesting time in fashion for bridging the gap between the shapely silhouette of the Belle Epoque years, and the shapeless La Garconne look of the 1920s. Interestingly, It was World War I that was responsible for loosening women’s wear. As women were encouraged to assist in the war effort, they began to occupy fields, the inside of airplanes, and hospitals more than the home. Farmwork, mechanics, and taking in wounded soldiers in a time of war couldn’t afford restricted movement. Skirt hems rose, the more flexible Spirella corset was made of wire instead of metal and bone, and dresses were loosened for greater movement.
Since this scene (and the whole movie for that matter), takes place in summer, it is worth noting the dominance of tea dresses at the wedding. They were considered a summertime necessity in the early 1900s and were ethereal spectacles of thin breathable fabrics such as voile, chiffon, net, and lace. They usually came in ivory or cream accented with dreamy blues, pale pinks, or warm peach undertones. Originally inspired by the lightness and colors of ballet costumes, they are most practical for hot climates like the deep south.
Indeed, the wedding looks generally post World War 1 judging by the sheer prevalence of tea dresses. However, I noticed some odd futuristic elements present in the films wardrobe. By futuristic, I mean trends as fashion-forward as the 1920s and 1930s! Take these children, for example:
The tots crowded around the mother are wearing dresses similar enough to Edwardian dresses for small children, expect for the drastic lack of embroidery, lace, and flounces. Moreover, the short puffed sleeves and what looks like a peter pan collar are staples seen in 1930s girl’s dresses. From what I could find, puffed sleeves for children in Edwardian years would usually reach near the elbow. Dresses with shorter sleeves were usually not puffed but cut in a short kimono sleeve.
It was a little tricky to figure out what was going on with the dresses of the two older girls. The violin player’s dress is uncharacteristically plain for the time, with an unusually narrow waist band. Most cotton lawn dresses for pre-teen girls that I could find featured a generously sized front yoke edged in frills and a wide waist band.
Moreover, what’s odd about both garments is the length. Children’s dresses have generally always been shortened at the knees or higher, even for formal occasions. This probably came as a result of parents coming to accept that children prioritize running around in dust and dirt more than sitting still. Take these still and well behaved Edwardian girls, for example:
The piano player is wisely keeping herself out of conversation. Perhaps, if she keeps to the side of the event and provides music, no one will point out the odd features of her dress. The vast majority of photos and fashion plates of 1910s dress for children do not feature dresses with a caplet absent of frills or lace. Moreover, examples of children dresses with caplets are usually worn by younger ages and include the dropped waist that was to dominate 1920s dress. The fit, drape, and especially the caplet of our time traveler, speaks more to the designs of the 1930s.
That is our first peek into the fashion of Fried Green Tomatoes! Stay tuned for part 2, where I will be focusing more on the central characters and perhaps a few extras if they are especially well dressed!