Dry Clean Only: Southern fashions show history, wealth

(Demetrius Freeman/HERALD)

Kae Holloway

Just a few short days before the start of this lovely, humid semester, I was flying to a lovely, yet more humid, city in the south known as Charleston, South Carolina — although this time I don’t mean ‘lovely’ sarcastically. 

I went to Charleston with an open mind. What I learned, what I saw and what I purchased gave me a new perspective on style in the Holy City, particularly those that were preppy, touristy and unique to the city. None were styles I necessarily felt compelled to adopt daily, but it all held a deep variety and quaintness that, as my Nana said many times, would make me want to jump into an island dress and run back to this little slice of the South.

The wealthy prep

Wealthy and preppy takes on new meaning in Charleston. Belmond Charleston Place’s grand staircase leads directly to a Gucci and Louis Vuitton. That just screams wealthy.

To use a southern term, folks are crowding through museums, browsing through markets and clutching palmetto roses wearing their Sunday best every single day. Or they look like they just came from a fraternity or sorority recruitment for 40-year-olds. 

The pastels of the men’s Ralph Lauren polo shirts and the women’s Lilly Pulitzer sun dresses pair perfectly with pastel buildings on every cobblestone street.

In Charleston, where the streets are stone instead of concrete and the buildings are bubble gum-colored instead of uniform red brick, it fits like a breeze from the Atlantic.

The tourist

The two staples to spot a tourist are immediate to pick up on. They usually have a folded up map or pamphlet of paper acting as a fan and a long maxi dress that was mistakenly packed. Charleston days are the equivalent of being in a sauna for six hours. It’s beautiful and it’s charming, but it is hot as hell. 

Don’t be the tourist in Charleston. Prepare for the heat and pack your shorter dresses, tank tops, shorts and sandals for the day. Save your long dresses for late night dinners or theater shows. 

The true Charlestonian

Of course there were big, corporate chain stores. King Street was lined with historical buildings that had been transformed into an expansive H&M and a multi-story Urban Outfitters. Gaggles of tourists lined the street to explore the stores, regardless of them being available in every major city. Just a few blocks over, however, lay a tie to the roots of old Charleston style and traditions that couldn’t be found in the fluorescent lights of Forever 21. 

People dress with a certain ease I haven’t seen in other cities. The vibrant, hand-dyed, sewn dresses, paired with accessories either weaved from palm trees or sculpted from metals and turquoise, made their southern drawls and outgoing personalities even more special. 

Their easy-going presence and style make it feel as if they are about to offer you a glass of sweet tea and let you sit on the porch a spell, not try to sell you a dress similar to the one on their back, or a bracelet slightly different from the one on their wrist.  

The true heart of Charleston, however, was found in the people making unique handmade baskets, jewelry, scarves and dresses, surrounded by the marble and pastel buildings and palm trees.

If you ever visit the charming and humid Holy City, go beyond the wealthy or chain storefronts and search for these unique, one of a kind little places. You’ll find bracelets, dresses and more that you’ll love for years, and it’ll have more meaning than finding it on a clearance rack at J. Crew.