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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 gracefulness. They were always good-mannered and could make any guest feel welcome. The "Southern belle" epitomized Southern hospitality, a cultivation of beauty, and a flirtatious yet chaste demeanor.
While the term is commonly used to indicate positive characteristics, it's not without controversy. Sam Bibble wrote in a piece for Gawker that:
Praising the loyalty and generosity of the Southern Belle is about as cheery as celebrating the camaraderie of the Hitler Youth, the fresh air of the Trail of Tears, or the cardiovascular benefits of the Bataan Death March. You can find something fun in any horror of history! And the Belles of today do exactly that—if you bring up sl*very, they'll point to all the nice parts about the Old South. The architecture, the parties, the sipping of cool drinks on warm porches. Oh, the fields? Those fields are just for growing delicious strawberries and tomatoes for folks to enjoy. Nothing more.
Every perk and beautiful part of white plantation life was created through black slavery. If Belles were patient and gracious, it's because forced black labor enabled it. If the Southern life was pretty and sophisticated, it's because slavery afforded it. Everything pleasant about Belle-hood was a function of human suffering on a vast scale—it's conceptually impossible to separate the society bankrolled by slavery from the slavery itself. 
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.[dead link] 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.
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