Past & Present
Most picture the 19th century Southern Belle as a beautiful, pampered young girl on her way to a fancy ball wearing an elegant gown. Some define them as coy, willful, selfish, and totally dependent on the men in their life. In reality the wealthy young girls in the South were generally well educated in the areas of reading, writing, arithmetic, music, art, and the French language. Learning to sew and do needlework were also an important part of her education since the clothes were hand sewn back then. The purpose of her education was to prepare her for an advantageous marriage.
~ Past ~
"There is no slave, after all like a wife... Poor women, poor slaves... All married women, all children and girls who live in their father's house are slaves."
Southern girls in the antebellum era had a relatively easy life. Most well to do girls had a Mammy that was more like a ‘family’ member- and helped raise the children along with the mistress of the plantation. Of course, the rules of society had to be followed and the girls were expected to be virtuous and obedient to their parents. Strict guidelines in courting had to be followed- as the slightest ‘look’ of impropriety could ruin their reputation. Proper manners and etiquette was a must in the proper society – and any deviation from that was not looked upon well. Even though they were born free of slavery- the law looked upon the girls and women as property of the father or husband.
- Mary Boykin Chestnut from A Dairy of Dixie 1861.
The following story was passed down in my family from my Grandfather who owned a plantation in Florida before and after the Civil War-
“It’s said that when the girls faced the fact there was no one to wash their clothes for them they just sat down and cried, but they were told that they might just as well get busy—no more fine clothes or theatre parties, but work ahead.”
Once married, the Southern Belle would usually find herself a mistress of a large plantation. Her duty was to be responsible for all household matters and supervision of the household's slaves.
Respectable Southern women were expected to do their part to hold up the plantation image which included being subservient to the powerful husband. The ‘true Southern lady’ was virtuous, self-sacrificing, and passive. Of course, while making sure the household was in perfect order, she was expected to be the perfect hostess and organize the lavish balls and receptions that were part of the social life. Many times the mistress was the one called upon for help in treating the sick on the plantation and in other times of distress when the husband was not around.
Kimberly ~ 1985
~ Present ~
**The original definition of a 'Southern Belle' was a daughter of a white wealthy elitist Southern plantation owner.
The 'true' Southen Belle has ceased to exist.**
Educational References ~
Teachers have been contacting me about students using my webpage as a reference and there has been a question of the legitimacy of it. My background is that I am a genealogist and researcher for over 20 years. I only deal with facts and proper documentation in all my research. I was lucky enough to find some first hand accounts from my southern ancestors as well.
From reading personal writings and diaries of southern women, and reading educational and research material on southern history – I have acquired a great deal of knowledge. Combine all that with the history courses in college I completed, I think of myself as very well qualified on the subject of 'southern culture’ and the ‘southern way of life.’
Here are two of my favorite 'personal writings' I have found written in the South during the 19th century:
Social Life in Old New Orleans, Being Recollections of my Girlhood by Ripley, Eliza Moore Chinn McHatton, 1832-1912
The Secret Eye- The Journal of Ella Gertrude Caltnon Thomas 1848-1889 published by The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill 1989.
I hope this will satisfy the requirement for a reference for any part of my southern themed webpage. I am also open to any questions that anyone may have on a certain subject, please feel free to contact me.
Rules of the Southern Belle
-Never wear white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day except is if it is a bride.
-Thank you notes are a necessary component of being gracious and appreciative.
-Never chew gum or smoke on the street.
-Never show anger in public. Smile and act like a lady.
-Act helpless and confused when it's to your advantage; never let them know how clever and capable you really are...
-Charm, Charm, Charm.
-Be elegant and graceful
"Remember to be very careful of who you talk about around here. Everybody in the South is kin to each other. No matter who you bring up, you're bound to be insulting somebody's aunt, uncle, or third cousin twice removed."
"Tacky" - a common word used most often by Southern women describing someone's behavior or appearance.
Look at those tacky clothes she wore to the funeral.
It's just too tacky to talk about.
Southerners who have " gone back on your raisin' " (i.e.- denied their heritage)
Actor George Hamilton was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He's now considered a traitor in Natchez, Mississippi. He owned two historical plantations in Natchez and then moved. He sold both plantations, including the historic Gloucester Plantation, to a group of Hare Krishnas. It's now being described as a home where the Old South meet the ancient east. But, some Natchez residents "just know it will come back to us."
Names with a Southern History
MARTHA -- Direct descendents of Thomas Jefferson always name their first daughter Martha. One generation may be Martha Jane, and the next be Martha Ann.
FANCY and TANCY -- Fancy is a name going back before the civil war. Tancy came along when twins were born in one generation and Tancy rhymes with Fancy.
ROSE ANN, VIOLET ANN, IRIS ANN -- Southern fathers think of their daughters as flowers of the South, so they often give them floral names.
SISTER -- All over the Alabama and Mississippi you will find girls called sister. This isn't their given name, but they are called this from birth through their life.
Reference: A Southern Belle Primer : Or Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be a Kappa Kappa Gamma
by Maryln Schwartz
Thoughts on Southern Belles
With the memories of the Old South fading, so are the ideas and values of southern belles and southern ladies. The art and culture of being a southern belle is dying out, just as the Old South did. Many southern girls and women these modern days, lack the proper upbringing and are not taught the old-fashioned ideas of being a southern belle or southern lady.
To be taught the ideas and traditions, you certainly must have a mother and or/ grandmother who is a southern lady. The southern ladies raised in the 1950’s and early 1960’s are the last of the women raised in the old-fashioned southern values.
Coming from a respectable family that has financial means is a must to be considered a southern belle- not a southern lady. Having some financial means does help, but if you do not have the proper upbringing, no amount of money can help you attain southern lady status. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Some southern ladies never came from social prominence and their families had very little money. These women were taught as children grace, manners, and values. Some women from this group of southern ladies are some of the most gracious, refined, and sweetest women I have ever met.
It can be said that from a social point of view that the idea “southern belles” is an elitist title invented by wealthy southern plantation owners. The title itself has the connotations of arrogance and self-importance. There is arrogance and self-importance to a degree in all southern belles and southern ladies, myself included. Some southern belles/ladies have very little arrogance or self-importance about them. Then, there are some that are self-absorbed with these qualities; I find in my experience that these women feel a need to over-compensate for qualities they lack.
I feel the greatest contributors in the cultural and social change of the proper upbringing of southern women are:
Decline is morals – With the acceptance of unwed motherhood, this is just one of many behaviors that has had a devastating effect on many families. Of course it is the parent’s duty to teach morals, but many parents lack in that duty. The principles of honesty, integrity, and virtue are not being taught to many of the younger girls. The media parading sexual freedom also has had a harming effect on all of society.
“Modern” women and “Modern” society – Some of the ideas of the modern woman and modern society have changed the household of what a true "Southern family" should be. Nowadays, these old-fashioned ideas may seem insulting to some modern thinking women. It is the man’s duty to support his family the best he can. If at all possible, the mother needs to be home to raise the small children. The proper southern household should be set to where the wife and the female children take care of the household duties (laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc). The yard work and house repairs are the husbands and the male children’s duty. If the woman works full-time (some have no choice), she comes home to cook and clean. If financially able, you hire a maid to help. These rules define roles, which makes a more organized family and household. The women should know how to cook meals from scratch, not quick box meals. I am the only person under the age of 55 in my family that can make homemade bread/desserts and can vegetables and fruit. The art of cooking southern food is not being taught much to the younger generations these days.
I know that many disagree with my ideas and opinions. Some of you may be disappointed of my not promoting the “Southern Belle” myth you may have expected to read. Much to my sadness, the breed of the southern belle/southern lady are dying out. - September 2000
More Thoughts on Southern Belles…
The earlier comments were written ten years ago and times have changed for the worse and it deeply saddens me. Children and young girls know of adult subject matter that I didn’t know much of until I was married at age 20 in 1988!
There have been many changes in the last ten years and I see even in “polite” society how younger mothers are not teaching their daughters manners and how to act like a lady. Even the wearing of a dress for many girls today- is uncommon. It saddens me that the southern “way of life” I grew up in is truly dying before my eyes. Little by little, for too many reasons to detail, this new modern world of cell phones and technology is only making the “selfish me” complex grow greater in our children.
For those who feel like I do, all we can do is raise our children in the way we want- and train them in the proper southern ways and teach them manner and etiquette. It is up to us to preserve our past heritage and pass it on to our children. This has to be the foremost goal in raising our children if we want honor and morality and GOD to continue in future generations. – October 2010
~ Best Historical Southern Films that feature Southern Belles ~
BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)
This was the first epic battle scene film to be made and was directed by the famous D. W. Griffith. (He directed many acclaimed films.) From the many first hand accounts from people that lived in the Civil War era- this movie is factually correct from the view of the white man. This movie has been criticized for 'racist' overtones- but it is how things were then.
The one defining 'Southern Belle' moment in this film is when the character Flora is pursued by a now free former slave Gus- who proposes marriage. Gus is very direct and persistent- and she runs from him and ends in the forest. She ends up by a cliff- trapped- and she knows if he reaches her- she will be sexually assaulted and forever ruined. (as there is no one to protect her.) So, Flora chooses to kill herself and keep her honor. This is a great silent film which depicts the South the way it was, and it wasn't always nice. But, who are we to judge back then?
THE LITTLE COLONEL (1935)
This heartwarming story features Shirley Temple and great actor Lionel Barrymore. Southern belle Elizabeth marries a Northerner and moves away- and her father Colonel Lloyd disapproves. Elizabeth moves back near her old home with her daughter Lloyd (Shirley Temple) while her husband remains West for a while longer. Lloyd then finally gets to know her grandfather Colonel Lloyd. Southern themes and the way of life are depicted beautifully.
The famous William Wyler directed this film starring Bette Davis. This is the only film other than GONE WITH THE WIND that really depicts 'Southern Belles' in the 19th century accurate. Strong willed Julie (Bette Davis) makes choices that bring her sorrow and in the end she tries to atone for her mistakes. What stood out for me costume wise in this film- was her beautiful white dress. Superb acting and one of my all time favorite films.
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
David O. Selznick directed this great movie featuring great actors Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. This is the most well-known southern film and received ten Academy Awards. This film features the sometimes rebellious Scarlett and it depicts southern society well. (Note: The book GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell is better than the actual movie.)
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)
This film is based on the Tennessee Williams play with the same name starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The setting is a Mississippi plantation where the married characters Brick and Maggie live with her father Big Daddy. In the movie we see the South changing- as it did with time. In this more modern society, there are still certain 'society rules' but features more 'freedom' of women due to liberation. Another important aspect of this film is it shows how greed and jealousy can ruin relationships. Excellent film- but I would not recommend for under 18 years of age because of adult marital issues.
NORTH AND SOUTH - Television Mini-Series (1985, 1986, 1994)
The mini-series starring Patrick Swayze and others known stars deals with the battles and turmoil of the soldiers as well as scenes with life as a ‘Southern Belle.’ The women’s costumes are beautiful as well. I do not recall seeing the last BOOK III installment in 1994. But, I did see BOOK I and BOOK II television movies. Compared to other films about this time period- I felt it “too commercialized” and not as authentic as previous films mentioned on this page. But, it is worth a watch and was an interesting mini-series. (NORTH AND SOUTH was filmed at Greenwood Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana - pictures are on my Southern Plantations Page)
STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989)
Growing up in the South in a well-respected proper family, this film was true to how it still is today in some aspects. The film stars Julia Roberts and Sally Fields in a story of a southern wedding and life afterwards. You could say the character Shelby is a modern-day Southern Belle. The events surrounding the wedding and customs are correct. Even the beauty parlor scenes are very factual about the 'socializations' that occur there. This is the only mainstream film I know to date that has portrayed the Southern way of living accurately in this modern age.
In conclusion, I will end with a favorite quote:
Southerners can never resist a losing cause.
Margaret Mitchell (1900–1949), U.S. novelist. Rhett Butler, in Gone with the Wind, (1936)
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