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The image of the Southern belle developed in the South during the Antebellum Period. It was based on the young, unmarried woman in the plantation-owning upper class of Southern society. A Southern belle of that era was keenly aware of the popular fashion of that time, and the modern archetypal image still includes antebellum fashion. A Southern belle typically wore a hoop skirt, a corset, pantalettes, a wide-brimmed straw hat, and gloves. They also frequently carried parasol umbrellas and hand fans. As was fashion at the time, these young women shielded themselves carefully from the sun, as a sign of tanning was considered working-class and unfashionable. Southern belles were expected to marry respectable young men, and become ladies of society dedicated to the family and community.
An essential element of the Southern belle was social grace. They were always good-mannered and could make any white guest feel welcome. The "Southern belle" epitomized Southern hospitality, a cultivation of beauty, and a flirtatious yet chaste demeanor.
The opening scene of the film Gone with the Wind is widely considered to depict a classic example of a Southern belle. In that scene, Scarlett O'Hara is on the porch entertaining the Tarleton Twins, and they are completely captivated by her. She is playful, delicate, and beautiful.
During the Reconstruction Era in the South, the role of the plantation-owning upper class changed dramatically. The role of women changed dramatically as well, as did the clothing fashion from the antebellum era.
During the early 20th century, several things happened to revive the image of the antebellum young woman, and the archetype began to form. By far the most important event was the release of the film Gone with the Wind. Dick Pope, Sr., famed promoter of Florida tourism, played an important role in popularizing the archetypal image. He had a staff of Southern belles working as hostesses at his famed Cypress Gardens. He promoted their image in magazines photo-spreads and newsreels all over the world, in an effort to promote his theme park.
In a modern context, the term is used to describe graceful Southern-born females from any ethnic background. The term may also be used for a débutante from the southern United States. There is no single formula for what constitutes a Southern belle today, but they are certainly not all old money and triple-legacy sorority girls.
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