Flannery’s Frocks

During the quarantine, you might have fallen into the category of people who dressed up to stay home. Throughout the country and elsewhere, people became tired of wearing sweats and athleisure every day and decided to dress up even if it was to work from home or hang out in the backyard. This seemed very strange at first in a world where people are rarely dressed up even in public, but it actually mimics the fashion of the 1950s. In Flannery’s day, housewives dressed up to stay at home, and their daily uniform was the house dress. This was not the highly structured dress with a gargantuan petticoat that we often associate with the 50s. A house dress, or shirt dress, was a typically cotton dress that was lightweight and unrestrictive enough to allow for the completion of daily chores. Yet, a shirt dress was sophisticated and polished enough that you could wear it to the grocery store or to receive unexpected guests. These dresses often buttoned down the front and included a loose bodice, pockets, and minimal trim to blend practicality with an effortlessly fashionable appearance.[1] Although Flannery was not a housewife, she did work from home, and the house dress was very suited to a casual day on the farm.

Andalusia Collection 2019.1.183

Although Flannery gives off the impression that she would not be the slightest bit interested in something as frivolous and trivial as fashion, she showed an interest in clothing from a young age. As a young girl in Savannah, Flannery made outfits for her chickens, including one for a bantam that consisted of a coat, striped trousers, and a belt.[2] Fashion later served as a way to explain a character’s attitude in her stories. For example, the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” who dresses very formally for a road trip so that people, “would know at once that she was a lady.”[3]

Throughout her life, Flannery’s mother, Regina, sewed the majority of her clothing. She also did alterations to purchased clothing:  shortening/lengthening hems, adding shoulder pads, or changing out buttons.  Clothing items were purchase if they were at a reasonable price. Otherwise, Regina would find a pattern to create it herself. This resulted in an array of standard 1950s house dresses, some of them complete with matching belts. This style combined Flannery’s sense of practicality and Regina’s insistence on looking dignified and ladylike at all times. Many of these dresses, along with some more formal ones, fortunately, remain at Andalusia today. Including an array of dark blue and green outfits that mimic the colors of her famous pets, as well as more bold ones like this red and white, three-quarter length sleeve shirt dress.

The dress worn by Flannery in the above photo is part of the Andalusia Collection: 2018.1.613.

These dresses were thin and easy to clean, the perfect thing to wear around an un-air-conditioned farmhouse. The dresses could be worn with a tidy hat, gloves, sweater, and purse and be ready for her daily church visit. She could easily transition at  home to a wide-brimmed sunhat and comfortable shoes to feed her peachickens outside in the yard. Although Flannery might have preferred to wear pants, her dresses were suited to her lifestyle and reflected her life with her mother at Andalusia.

Society in the 1950s, like previous decades, maintained expectations women have a put-together “womanly” appearance in public and at home. The house dress developed as a way for women to maintain that look while still being comfortable and getting their housework done. Today, women have the freedom to wear what they like. If comfort for you is leggings and a t-shirt, great! Or, if you feel like trying something new, we recommend a modern version of the house dress to experience comfort and practicality like Flannery O’Connor.

[1] “1950s House Dresses and Aprons History,” Vintage Dancer, accessed May 28, 2020, https://vintagedancer.com/1950s/1950s-house-dresses-aprons/.

[2] Margaret Inman Meaders, Flannery O’Connor: ‘Literary Witch,’” Colorado Quarterly 10 (1962): 378.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in The Complete Stories (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 118.

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