The Southern belle (derived from the French word belle, 'beautiful') is a stock character representing a young woman of the American Deep South's upper socioeconomic class.
The image of the Southern belle developed in the South during the so-called "antebellum" era. It was based on the young, unmarried woman in the plantation-owning upper class of Southern society.
The image of a Southern belle is often characterized by fashion elements such as a hoop skirt, a corset, pantalettes, a wide-brimmed straw hat, and gloves. As signs of tanning were considered working-class and unfashionable during this era, parasols and fans are also often represented.
Southern belles were expected to marry respectable young men, and become ladies of society dedicated to the family and community. The "Southern belle" archetype is characterized by Southern hospitality, a cultivation of beauty, and a flirtatious yet chaste demeanor.
For example, Sallie Ward, who was born into the Southern aristocracy of Kentucky in the Antebellum South, was called a "Southern belle".
The Southern belle archetype has been criticized as part of an overall idealization of the American South in popular culture. Slavery figured strongly into the region's economy during the plantation era. In turn, the image of the idyllic Southern plantation is considered by many to be insensitive to the plight of slaves.
In popular culture
During the early 20th century, the release of the film Gone with the Wind popularized the image of the Southern belle.
Southern belles have also been featured in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Jezebel, Fried Green Tomatoes, Wacky Races, Steel Magnolias, and Sweet Home Alabama.
Dick Pope, Sr., famed promoter of Florida tourism, played an important role in popularizing the archetypal image. Hostesses at his famed Cypress Gardens were portrayed as Southern belles in promotional materials for the theme park.