Inside Regina’s Sewing Desk, part 1
Clothing is perhaps the most historically indicative artifact. From any time period, a wardrobe and its preservation can inform the class, age, occupation, and more of its owner. Not only that, clothing, clothing production, and fashion have historically been women’s domains, allowing for an underrepresented group to express their feelings and opinions in new ways. What interests me about the textiles and related artifacts in Andalusia’s collection is how much personality they contain. These scraps of cloth make Flannery and Regina into real people, rather than ideas lost to historical characterization. Regina had unfinished projects, things she never got around to finishing. She had a personal style, colors and patterns indicative of what appealed to her and what she thought looked best. Flannery had her own way of doing things, a more muted sense of color and pattern that nevertheless is reminiscent of her mother’s in the same way that a rebellious child is reminiscent of their parents. The way both women’s clothes simultaneously followed and deviated from the fashions of the day show their respective ideas about culture, as well as the way they interacted with the world. Though Flannery’s life was far from ordinary, she ascribed to the way women were supposed to dress and present themselves (with her own personal twist).
A selection of Regina’s works-in-progress sewing projects found in the Andalusia collection.
Sewing was in a strange societal position in the 1950s. Wartime scarcity had encouraged homemade clothes, and textile rationing adapted popular styles to use less fabric. After the war, however, many Americans found the influx of ready-made clothes more appealing than straining over a sewing machine for hours. Industrial growth meant that once-expensive items like off-the-rack clothes were available to a wider audience, regardless of economic status. In a town like Milledgeville, however, options were limited, especially for a young up-and-coming author. Luckily for Flannery, Regina was an accomplished seamstress, with a cabinet full of dress patterns and boxes of assorted fabrics.
The fact that Regina chose to create wholecloth much of the wardrobe at Andalusia speaks to a very particular position for women in society. The prevailing framework for historical women in the 1950s―postwar working women pushed back into the domestic sphere, awash in the sudden luxuries of victory, all married and raising 2.5 children―fails to account for the real experiences of working-class women, women of color, rural women, and many other groups. In short, it is inaccurate. Therefore, to consider Regina O’Connor’s life through that lens would lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the social, political, and economic factors that influenced her life and decisions. Regina was a white Southern widow, born and raised in middle Georgia. She operated a dairy farm and cared for her chronically ill daughter. Broadly speaking, her decision to make clothes herself when the process was widely becoming automated was minor, but reveals the systems she faced and conditions under which she operated. As a Catholic Southern woman, Regina was expected to follow certain gendered codes of action, some of which were unavailable to her due to her economic and marital statuses. While it was seen as inappropriate for a woman to run a business by herself in the 1950s, Regina had little choice between breaking that norm or relying entirely on her male family members for financial support. Perhaps it was a need to perform aspects of femininity to make up for her transgressions, maybe it was a creative outlet that doubled as a productive craft, maybe it was simply necessity that led her to sew as extensively as she did. Historians ascribe much significance to simple acts that likely had little meaning to the people who performed them. Maybe Regina just enjoyed sewing. But the fact that she chose to follow the longstanding tradition of female seamstresses is significant in itself, including her choices of fabric and patterns to follow. While homemaking clothes was slightly out of step with her time period, Regina also chose to make articles of clothing that were in fashion. From this, it is reasonable to assume that her choice to make her own (and Flannery’s) clothes was likely not an expression of individuality, but rather an economic or practical decision.