The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. The author has to convey the times and the settings through descriptions that the readers will understand; and she also has to be true to the very different lives of the white socialites and the black maids. You can first see examples of fashion used as characterization in the opening chapter, which is told by Aibileen. When she comes to terms with her son’s death, she tells us: “I lifted myself up out a bed, I put on my white uniform and put my little gold cross back around my neck and I went to wait on Miss Leefolt cause she just have her baby girl.” We know right away that the black maids wear uniforms to serve the white socialites. We also know that Aibileen sees her religion as being important to her, because she wears a necklace with a cross on it.
Later in the same chapter, Aibileen describes the ladies who come to the Leefolt house for bridge club. About Hilly Holbrook: “Miss Hilly got a round face and dark brown hair in the beehive. … She one a those grown ladies that still dress like a little girl with big bows and matching hats and such.” This clear picture is painted for us. Contrast this to Minny’s first meeting with Miss Celia Rae Foote at the beginning of Chapter 3. Minny describes the person in front of her:
She might be built like Marilyn [Monroe], but she ain’t ready for no screen test. She’s got flour in her yellow hairdo. Flour in her glue-on eyelashes. And flour all over that tacky pink pantsuit. Her standing in a cloud of dust and that pantsuit being so tight, I wonder how she can breathe. … She’s probably ten or fifteen years younger than me, twenty-two, twenty-three, and she’s real pretty, but why’s she wearing all that goo on her face? I’ll bet she’s got on double the makeup the other white ladies wear.
Right away in this scene, we know that Celia is not like the other white socialites of Jackson. No wonder she doesn’t fit in with the group, no matter what she does. And these are just a few examples from the opening chapters of the book. Naturally, all of these appearances and fashions are much more prominent in the movie version. On the screen, we can see immediately the marked differences between races and classes without being given any additional verbal explanations about them.