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Conservation work begins on "Gone With The Wind" dresses with study of stitching and construction

By Elana Estrin

“Great balls of fire!” Scarlett O’Hara declares in Gone With The Wind as she rips down the green velvet curtains, pole and all, and throws them over her shoulder. “I’m going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen.”

Designed by Walter Plunkett, Scarlett’s green curtain dress is one of five Gone With The Wind dresses that came to the Ransom Center in the 1980s when the Center acquired the archive of Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick. The dresses were designed to last only as long as it took to shoot the film. Some of the conservation issues include loose seams, weak areas in the fabric, and mysterious discoloration. This past summer, the Ransom Center put out a call urging Gone With The Wind enthusiasts to help the Center raise $30,000 to preserve the dresses in time for the Ransom Center’s Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014, scheduled to coincide with the film’s 75th anniversary. Thanks to almost 700 people from around the world, from the United States to Turkey to Romania, the Ransom Center surpassed its goal within three weeks.

Efforts preliminary to the conservation work are already underway. Beginning in November, the Ransom Center enlisted the help of Nicole Villarreal, a Textile and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, to do a preliminary study of the curtain dress. Villarreal will also study the other dresses for variations in discoloration and record her observations.

“It seems like there have been various repairs made to the curtain dress at different times,” says Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center. “Before conservators can proceed confidently, they need to know what was original stitching and what might have been done later.”

Morena emphasizes that the conservation project is not a restoration project meant to restore the dresses to their original, pristine condition.

“Complete restoration would effectively erase the historical context of the creation and use of the costume. There’s an inevitable decay with any textile-based item, but you try and slow down that decay as much as you can with conservation and preservation work.”

All of Plunkett’s work on the dresses as well as quick fixes on-set by various seamstresses would be considered original stitching by conservators. Anything done outside of the film’s production would not be considered original. For example, before coming to the Ransom Center, the dresses were displayed in movie theaters across the country. They even had a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a film costume exhibition. Any changes or repairs for display purposes would not be considered original, but it’s not always easy to determine which stitches were made when.

“It’s a puzzle,” Villarreal says. “Here you have very nice, clean stitching with green thread. In other places, it’s very irregular with black thread. And then you have some hooks that are kind of like an afterthought. Maybe this part was damaged that they needed to replace quickly on the set. Just before filming, you don’t have time to make those perfect little neat stitches. Or maybe it was done later.”

On the other hand, a mysterious partial “hoop” that creates an undulating “wave” at the front hem of the curtain dress appears to not be original, though its source and purpose remain unknown.

“If you look at the front hem of the dress in the film, it just doesn’t behave like this. It lies flat against the hoop underneath, and it doesn’t look like there’s this undulating movement at all. So why and when and where this was put in is still kind of a mystery,” Morena says.

In addition to watching the film and studying the dresses directly for hints about their history, Morena, Villarreal, and Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson are searching for clues in the Selznick archive, photographs, and from anyone who has information.

“We know that Plunkett worked on conserving them shortly before his death,” says Wilson. “We want to figure out the extent of what he did. That’s going to be hard unless we can find someone who was with him at the time or knew about the project. Or maybe there are photographs.”

In addition to piecing together the dresses’ history, they have been trying to figure out the cause of a mysterious discoloration on the green curtain dress.

“When you first look at it you think, oh it’s light damage,” says Morena. “But conservators have examined the dress and have remarked that it doesn’t behave or feel like it’s light damage. Normally when you have severe light damage, the pile on the velvet gets really crunchy and dry and in some cases starts to fall away. The areas that seem to have light damage feel exactly the same as the areas that don’t.”

Villarreal says that they plan to consult with Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin, about using lab equipment to do fiber analysis on the discolored fabric and to identify anachronistic fabric.

As she studies the dresses inch by inch, Villarreal takes copious and clear notes so that conservators can later use Villarreal’s observations to guide their work.

“I make sketches, measure everything, and write it all down in a notebook,” Villarreal says. “I write down where there are seams, where there are clips, what thread is used. And then I also have pictures that go with that. If there’s a place where a little boning is sticking out, I can go to that picture, highlight it, and then put it on the report so that when conservators read it, they can go to that spot instead of having to look for it.”

Villarreal grew up in the Netherlands and started sewing when she was nine years old. She worked as a fashion designer before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree. Her Textile and Apparel Technology classmates are mostly fiber science students, which Villarreal says makes her the “odd duck.” Dr. Kay Jay, one of Villarreal’s professors and Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection at the University, recommended Villarreal for this project and helped her see it a different way.

“This project is so suited to her. Nicole’s expertise in this area sets her apart from our graduate students because most of them do not come from a construction background. So rather than feeling like it’s an extra skill that she brought, now she realizes that it really is a good thing in addition to her fiber background,” Jay says. “The Ransom Center’s been wonderful to include us. They’re very collaborative. We feel fortunate to be on campus with them.”

Only about a month into the project, Villarreal says it has already shaped her post-graduation plans.

“When this came up, I was really excited because it was something I’d always wanted to do. If I can keep on doing anything in conservation, that would be absolutely great. Just being involved on the fringe is great. People have been writing and calling from all over the world saying, ‘Can I help? I’m a tailor.’ I think, ‘Hey! I get to work on this project!’ That’s been very exciting.”

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Holiday hours at the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

While the Ransom Center will be closed for Thanksgiving Day, the galleries will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, November 26, and from noon to 5 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

Vistors can see the current exhibition, Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, as well as The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible, which are on permanent display.

Free docent-led tours of the Gernsheim exhibition are offered at 2 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

The Reading Room will be closed on Friday, November 26, and Saturday, November 27, but will reopen on Monday, November 29.

Fellow uses astronomy collection to research novel

By Courtney Reed

John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ransom Center curators Steve Wilson (far left) and Jill Morena (second from right) discuss future collaboration with the University’s School of Human Ecology to analyze fiber content and the construction history of the green curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ University colleagues from Human Ecology include from left, Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel; Dr. Kay Jay, Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection; Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Director of the school; and Nicole Villarreal, Human Ecology graduate student. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center curators Steve Wilson (far left) and Jill Morena (second from right) discuss future collaboration with the University’s School of Human Ecology to analyze fiber content and the construction history of the green curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ University colleagues from Human Ecology include from left, Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel; Dr. Kay Jay, Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection; Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Director of the school; and Nicole Villarreal, Human Ecology graduate student. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center photographer Anthony Maddaloni photographs the boxes of the final page proofs for James Joyce's 'Ulysses' for an upcoming newsletter feature. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center photographer Anthony Maddaloni photographs the boxes of the final page proofs for James Joyce's 'Ulysses' for an upcoming newsletter feature. Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Adair examines an original costume design by William Nicholson for the title role in ‘Peter Pan,’ first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1904. The drawing, located in the records of the London costumier B. J. Simmons & Co., was pulled for ‘Design Skills: Costume,’ a class in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Adair examines an original costume design by William Nicholson for the title role in ‘Peter Pan,’ first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1904. The drawing, located in the records of the London costumier B. J. Simmons & Co., was pulled for ‘Design Skills: Costume,’ a class in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Photo by Pete Smith.
Fellow Jeffrey McCarthy discusses collections that he is researching for “Green Modernism.” McCarthy, recipient of a fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, was one of five fellows that shared their research during an informal lunchtime discussion. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Fellow Jeffrey McCarthy discusses collections that he is researching for “Green Modernism.” McCarthy, recipient of a fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, was one of five fellows that shared their research during an informal lunchtime discussion. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Additional Bernard Malamud letters, typescripts acquired by Ransom Center

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center recently acquired additional collection material for its Bernard Malamud collection, including 285 letters and 10 typescript stories from Malamud to his literary agent. This new collection complements the Center’s existing collection of Malamud papers.

Malamud (1914–1986) was a novelist and short story writer, probably best known for his 1952 novel The Natural, which was adapted into a film in 1984 that starred Robert Redford.

In the new collection, the bulk of Malamud’s letters are addressed to his literary agent at Russell & Volkening, Diarmuid Russell. There are also three letters each to Henry Volkening and to Russell’s assistant, Connie Cunningham. In many of the letters, Malamud wrote his response on the bottom of the originals from contacts at Russell & Volkening and then returned them to the sender. Throughout his correspondence, Malamud discusses contracts, foreign editions, potential movie deals, money-matters, arranging meetings or visits, and sharing general updates about himself and his family. Various business documents are also included in the additional material.

In earlier letters, Malamud is more gregarious and “chatty,” divulging more about his work. In one letter from 1950, Malamud writes that he is hard at work on a new novel: “I’m writing a novel about a baseball player (not a baseball novel). It will deal with a man, an American hero, who does not understand what it means to be a hero […] I call the book THE NATURAL” (June 30, 1950). Though, by 1957, Malamud’s letters take on a more formal tone, shorter and more businesslike.

The collection also contains typescripts corrected in Malamud’s hand, including 23 pages of Zora’s Noise, which Malamud emended with pencil and ink and white-out, correcting grammatical errors. Three pages of a photocopied first draft of a biographical piece are also found in the collection.

The materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

The Sweet Smell of Provenance

By Jennifer Tisdale

This copy of 'Ulysses,' which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book's history and its handlers.
This copy of 'Ulysses,' which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book's history and its handlers.
Some books in the Ransom Center’s collections tell a story just by their smells. The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram and literary scholar Edward L. Bishop explain how a copy of Ulysses, which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book’s history and its handlers. Learn more.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ben Ruggiero sensitizes paper in preparation to create a photogenic drawing as part of 'The Colorful Print: Photography before 1843' workshop at the Ransom Center. Taught by artist-educators and historians Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, participants made their own prints using 19th-century chemistry and techniques. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ben Ruggiero sensitizes paper in preparation to create a photogenic drawing as part of 'The Colorful Print: Photography before 1843' workshop at the Ransom Center. Taught by artist-educators and historians Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, participants made their own prints using 19th-century chemistry and techniques. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson (far left) led a tour of restricted-access areas of the building, including collection storage and the cataloging, technology, and conservation departments, for Ransom Center members at the Guild level and above. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson (far left) led a tour of restricted-access areas of the building, including collection storage and the cataloging, technology, and conservation departments, for Ransom Center members at the Guild level and above. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

By Alicia Dietrich

Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.

Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Royalty visited the reading room when a patron paged Charlemagne, one of the 60 Sicilian marionettes from the 'Opera dei pupi' (Puppet Theatre).  Made around 1860, the collection consists of 47 human figures, 3 devils, 9 animals and the magic winged horse, the hippogriff. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Royalty visited the reading room when a patron paged Charlemagne, one of the 60 Sicilian marionettes from the 'Opera dei pupi' (Puppet Theatre). Made around 1860, the collection consists of 47 human figures, 3 devils, 9 animals and the magic winged horse, the hippogriff. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hsuan-Yu Chen, a conservation intern from the Graduate Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics, Tainan National University of the Arts, Taiwan, pastes long fibered paper to reinforce the spine folds of the text block of ‘Tour in America.’ He will resew the book and reattach the original covers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hsuan-Yu Chen, a conservation intern from the Graduate Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics, Tainan National University of the Arts, Taiwan, pastes long fibered paper to reinforce the spine folds of the text block of ‘Tour in America.’ He will resew the book and reattach the original covers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg shares volumes from the monumental  'Description de l’Egypte' (1809-1828) with Kimbell Art Museum Deputy Director Malcolm Warner (center) and Kimbell members.  Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg shares volumes from the monumental 'Description de l’Egypte' (1809-1828) with Kimbell Art Museum Deputy Director Malcolm Warner (center) and Kimbell members. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.