Memphis Beauty in the Era of Big Cotton

Apr 18, 2014

Cotton Museum curator Melissa Farris hangs a painting that will be on display in a new exhibit.
Credit Christopher Blank

A new exhibit at the Cotton Museum explores female beauty in a city where cotton was once king. So what was the picture of beauty? Well, it depends on who's in the portrait.

At the corner of Union and Front Street, the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange is not a place one would associate with female beauty. In fact, in the heyday of the exchange, you would have been hard pressed to find a woman on the trading floor, much less get a good look at her through all the cigar smoke.

But recently, the museum’s curator Melissa Farris began looking at old archival photos.

"In those historic photos, black women are always portrayed as a 'Mammy' figure," she says. "And then the white women are also marginalized in a different way. They are sort of emblems of wealth and status. We have a lot of weird photos of pretty southern bells clutching cotton bolls or holding bouquets of cotton or posing like a pin-up girl on a cotton bale."

The pictures inspired a new exhibit and lecture series at the museum called “Black, White and Beauty: Confronting Race and Feminine Identity in the South.”

While the cotton trade in Memphis was a wealthy white man’s game, it also became intimately connected to Southern ideals of beauty.

The annual event called Cotton Carnival was originally created to promote the cotton industry. For years, massive parades down Main Street featured white floats decorated with cotton, then the Delta’s most widespread crop. Atop the floats were local debutantes – princesses -- in ball gowns.

The Cotton Museum remembers this tradition in a permanent exhibit.

"Beauty and feminine identity are all subjects that are already tied up in the museum, even if it's an undercurrent," Farris says. "It's not necessarily part of the history of cotton but it's part of the way our culture has developed around and mingled with cotton culture."

The exhibit features seven paintings by Memphis artist Kiersten Williams. She used photos from the museum’s archives to take a new look at Southern beauty.

Naturally race is a big part of this story. The original cotton carnival was segregated, like the city itself. Farris says that black society also had its beauty pageants during the cotton carnival festivities.

"Later on, the Cotton Jubilee was established as -- to borrow a Jim Crow era term -- as a separate but equal Cotton Carnival for the African-American community," Farris said. "They crowned their own separate queens."

Artist Kiersten Williams combined black and white archival photos from the Cotton Museum with bright colors to link the past and present. Seven pictures are now on display in the exhibit "Black, White, and Beauty: Confronting Race and Feminine Identity in the South."
Credit Photo by Christopher Blank

Farris says that Williams’ paintings, with kaleidoscopic colors overlaying black and white photos, speak to the past and the present.

"The colors and the angles and the way the images are coming together talks about change and the future," Farris says, "and how our images from the past are sort of incorporated in the way we view ourselves today."

Dr. Earnestine Jenkins from the University of Memphis is a guest lecturer during the exhibition. She’s been looking at how notions of cotton – or those stereotypically southern ideals of beauty -- affect women of color.

"Dealing with the whole notion of cotton, even symbolically, as being something that is white," Jenkins says. "And people in their minds and in their visual perceptions probably making a connection between that and white women and beauty pageants as a standard of beauty. But that's a problem, you know, given race." 

Jenkins says that with the speed at which images now flow across the Internet and increasingly extreme ideas of glamor -- through surgery and Botox -- this is a good time to re-examine what truly defines beauty in a woman.

"It's not just about a superficial idea about beauty and what somebody looks like," she says. "It's much more political and can be much more dangerous, and a matter of life and death even."

The Cotton Museum's exhibit opens April 18 with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m.  Dr. Earnestine Jenkins will deliver her lecture "Image Control: Photography, Fashion and Black Femininity" at 6 p.m. April 24. It is free and open to the public. Find out more at