Women — Past and Present — in the American South: Meet Costume Designer Elizabeth McBride

As part of our 30th anniversary tribute to the film classic Fried Green Tomatoes, Roza Melkumyan explores the filmography of its costume designer, Elizabeth McBride, who costumed some of the most iconic characters in the history of American cinema. 

Though it was met with mixed reviews upon first release, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) drew praise in several areas including cinematography, score, cast performance, and – you guessed it – costume design. And while I’ll admit that its narrative is a bit conventional and its characters of color are too two-dimensional, Fried Green Tomatoes serves as a wonderful example of how costume design can aid the development of a story and its characters. Although it is set in Birmingham (AL), Fried Green Tomatoes, but was actually filmed in Juliette (GA), and the film’s release drove a great deal of traffic to this small Southern town. Juliette even created a real-life Whistle Stop Café (whose fictional counterpart serves as the film’s fulcrum). 

Fried Green Tomatoes isn’t the only notable film with Elizabeth McBride’s name on it; the late costume designer was highly prolific throughout the 80s and 90s until her untimely death due to cancer in 1997. In addition to Fried Green Tomatoes, McBride also costumed characters for commercially successful and award-winning titles such as Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Thelma & Louise (1991), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Along with Fried Green Tomatoes, I’ve chosen to take a closer look at Driving Miss Daisy and Thelma & Louise, thereby focusing on the costumes McBride designed for her most-beloved female characters. I will explore the clothing McBride created and curated, as well as the ways in which her choices first ground and then help develop these stories at the same time as they chronicle the change over time in the personalities of the women at each film’s center.

Though McBride didn’t limit her work to stories set in the American South (The Shawshank Redemption, for example, takes place in Maine), she was known to specialize in fashions from the region — both period and modern. The three films discussed here set their stories in Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas (although Thelma and Louise eventually travel all the way to the Grand Canyon). Each film also utilizes costuming to signify the progression of time — whether it spans a few weeks or a few decades. 

Start with Driving Miss Daisy. Based on Alfred Uhry’s play of the same name, the Oscar-winning film begins in 1948, in Atlanta (GA), when the elderly Jewish widow, “Daisy Werthan” (Jessica Tandy) accidentally drives her car into the neighbor’s yard. Afraid of losing her independence and outraged by the idea of having her solitary lifestyle disrupted, she is furious when her son “Boolie” (Dan Aykroyd) hires a driver, the pleasant-tempered “Hoke” (Morgan Freeman). As time progresses, however, Miss Daisy comes to accept Hoke — an African-American man — into her life, first as a companion and eventually as a friend. Over the course of ninety-nine minutes, we watch as their clothing and cars change with the decades, and their faces age with time. 

McBride was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on the costume design of Driving Miss Daisy, and it isn’t hard to see why. Her challenge was two-fold in that she not only updated her characters’ clothing with each decade, but she also ensured that that clothing also reflected their own aging processes. Generally, new fashion trends reach the elderly at the slowest rate, if at all. The youth may be sporting bell bottom jeans and open collared blouses in the 70s, but that certainly doesn’t mean others will. More impervious to the changing fashions of the day, Hoke’s and Miss Daisy’s clothing changes only minimally. Less impervious to the passage of time, their faces age significantly. McBride’s feat lies in the minute as Miss Daisy trades in her 40s pastels and lacy collars for the darker jewel tones of the 50s and 60s, all the while keeping her hats and fans to keep cool in that Southern heat.

Whether or not you are comfortable with the anachronistic — and often frankly cringe-worthy — aspects of Driving Miss Daisy, you can’t deny its status as a classic in the American film anthology. After all, Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1990.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) get ready for a showdown | Photo Credit: Roland Neveu

Without a doubt, however, McBride created her most iconic looks for Thelma & Louise. Though best known for its final scene, director Ridley Scott’s and writer Callie Khouri’s revenge-on-the-road flick delivers costumes that exude and amplify the newfound confidence of its heroines. 

Whereas Daisy’s and Hoke’s costumes change minimally over a relatively long period of time, costumes for “Thelma” (Geena Davis) and “Louise” (Susan Sarandon) change drastically in just a few short weeks. What starts out as a fun weekend getaway from their drab lives in Arkansas quickly becomes a run from the law after Louise shoots a man dead for trying to rape Thelma.

A reflection of youth, radical independence, and lives in flux, the costumes of Thelma and Louise change from embroidered blouses and sheer skirts to jeans, sleeveless tops, and bandanas. The more feminine Thelma trades in her frilly white blouse for a black graphic tee and throws out her wedding ring. The normally put-together Louise lets her coiffed hair loose, trades in her cat eye sunglasses for aviators, and ditches the headscarf. Both abandon makeup entirely while embracing denim. Their gun, which they originally handle with fear and trepidation, becomes a friend and a vessel for their fury.

One might argue that in forfeiting their lipstick and frills for jeans and cowboy hats, Thelma and Louise sacrifice their femininity for independence. The beauty of denim, after all, lies in its ability to transcend gender; anybody can wear it. Furthermore, the idea that femininity exists solely in the delicate does a disservice to women, who can exhibit both strength and vulnerability, grit and softness, loud confidence and unassuming humility. Thelma and Louise have been hardened by their experiences. Their change in clothing shows us their capacity for survival, both physically and mentally, while signifying their desire to move forward and leave their pasts and their past selves behind forever. In their embrace of the natural, of the dirt of the open road, of looser fits and unisex accessories, they are somehow even more beautiful.

Elements of costume design in Driving Miss Daisy and Thelma & Louise come together in Fried Green Tomatoes, which takes place both in the present day (which must be defined relative to the date of its release in 1991) and in the past (meaning, in this case, the 1920s through the 1940s). Written by Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski, this feel-good feature has McBride do what she does best: tell a story through clothing.

As a young tomboy living in the 1920s South, “Idgie” (Mary Stuart Masterson) is afforded little room to express herself freely. Still a child, she struggles, literally, out of the bows and frills chosen by her mother. Ignoring society’s rules, teenage Idgie later develops her own unique style. Oversized men’s blouses are cinched in with big leather belts. Britches are held up with suspenders to allow for freer movement. 

Idgie’s style juxtaposes nicely with the pressed patterned frocks worn by schoolteacher “Ruth” (Mary-Louise Parker), who will quickly become her best friend and companion . For more on sexuality, gender identity, and the nature of the relationship between Idgie and Ruth, check out FF2 team member Dayna Hagewood’s post on the film. She’s got lots to say! As Idgie settles into adulthood and as the 20s become the 30s, the clothing she wears preserves her fiercely individualistic spirit while reflecting her growing maturity. Her loosely braided curls give way to a shorter cut and her men’s shirts are replaced with sleeveless, comfy blouses and wide-leg pants. 

While Idgie changes her style only slightly, housewife “Evelyn” (Kathy Bates) exhibits a quicker, more drastic change. Just as Thelma and Louise are fed up with the way they’ve been living life, so too does Evelyn decide that enough is enough. As she listens to the elderly “Ninny” (Jessica Tandy) tell Idgie’s story, Evelyn realizes that she doesn’t like the timid person she has become. In the beginning of the film, she wears old-fashioned, frumpy frocks. By the end, she is sporting impeccably tailored two-piece jacket and skirt sets and dresses.

The 1980s saw the rise of women in the workforce, as attitudes towards them seemed to reflect greater cultural appreciation of their capabilities. While her change in clothing reflects a greater shift in societal values, it also signifies that Evelyn has finally come into her own. 

© Roza M. Melkumyan (5/1/21) Special for FF2 Media

Hoke (Morgan Freeman) and Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) in Driving Miss Daisy | DVD Cover crop

Featured Photo (clockwise from top left): Mary-Louise Parker (Ruth), Mary Stuart Masterson (Idgie), Jessica Tandy (Ninny) & Kathy Bates (Evelyn) | Turner Classic Movies

Tags: carousel-5-21, costume design, costume designer, Driving Miss. Daisy, Elizabeth McBride, FF2 Media, Fried Green Tomatoes, Roza Melkumyan, Thelma & Louise

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. After graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. In 2019, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. She has continued to live in Armenia, and loves every second of it. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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