Fashion & Fiction in the South:
A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price
Rosacoke Mustian, the heroine of Reynolds Price’s 1962 novel A Long and Happy Life, is not a Southern belle. The first time we see her she is on the back of a motorcycle en route to a funeral, her skirt pulled up around her knees, her hat hidden away, her “white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat.” Dust from the North Carolina roads soon turns her white shoes tan, but no matter. Rosacoke has more important things on her mind than clothes.
She is an unlikely muse for a fashion editorial, and yet as I was styling a photo shoot for my friend, Atlanta-based photographer extraordinaire Jamie Hopper, I couldn’t think of anyone but Rosacoke. I knew that we would be going to a very rural part of middle Alabama to shoot, that there would be a small lake and dirt roads, forests and kudzu. The more I heard the location described the more it reminded me of the world A Long and Happy Life inhabits, one of country churches and farm fields and swimming holes. And then the story for the shoot began to take shape in my mind, and it was mostly Rosacoke’s.
I say that Rosacoke is an unlikely muse for a fashion editorial because clothes only play a minor role in her life. She works in a store most days, and if she does dress up she’s probably going to church. She’s a character with a great deal of common sense and a surprising lack of frivolity. While the Southern belle (in this case her rival Willie Duke Aycock) dresses up to impress a lover, Rosacoke does the opposite. When Rosacoke’s sometime-boyfriend Wesley Beavers comes back home after a long absence, Rosacoke makes sure she has on “nothing fancy, nothing but the pale blue dress and the sweater she wore any evening when she had worked all day.” She is too stubborn to play the flirt, too sensible to pretend to be anyone other than Rosacoke.
In Rosacoke’s mind, the kinds of girls who dress up are frivolous like Willie Duke or loose like the women who skinny dip with Wesley Beavers on the beaches of Norfolk, Virginia. Rosacoke prefers her clothes to be functional and neat: During the week she wears cardigans and “easy shoes,” and when she hangs up her Sunday dress in her closet she makes sure all the buttons are firmly in place.
I can only wonder what she would think about being the muse for our fashion shoot. When I chose the pieces for our model Bailey to wear, I tried to keep them simple and functional: a white dress for special occasions, a bathing suit for swimming, high-waisted shorts for exploring, and flat shoes for walking. I didn’t want to get too literal with the inspiration, especially since I’m not the biggest fan of 1950s fashions or of photo shoots that are too in-your-face retro. But I did want to get something of the quiet spirit of Rosacoke across in the clothes.
I also wanted to try to get the spirit of the place across. I went for traditional Southern fabrics: seersucker in pale colors, a skirt in humble grey and white ticking, ordinary blue denim. And when I came across a calico patchwork bathing suit, I knew it would be perfect since it reminded me so much of the handmade quilts you can find all over the South. Whether Rosacoke would approve of a strapless bathing suit is questionable—it might be a little too Willie Duke Aycock for her taste. But after the shoot was done and Jamie sent me the final photos, I could definitely see a little bit of North Carolina in the Alabama skies and the dusty roads. And if I really concentrate and use my imagination, I can almost see Rosacoke Mustian waiting on her front porch for Wesley Beavers, wearing nothing fancy.