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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.

Comments

lupe smith
Reply

Its unfortunate that Vivien wasn’t still here so that she would be able to give some insight on the dress, as to what was original or added later while restoring. We are all grateful there are experts working on her dress. Thank you~

Melissa Carbone
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I am so very excited to hear the work has begun. 2014 will be here before we know it; can’t wait for the exhibit. I recently used a quote from the movie at work and an elderly physician told me his “GWTW” story. He was 15 years old and it was his first date. He could only get tickets for a 10pm show. He said, “Imagine the look on my father’s face when I came home at 2 o’clock in the morning!” How sweet. I am sure we all have a “GWTW” story. The University might think of creating a forum for the world to share theirs.

Jenny Hammerton
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Oh how wonderful. I’ll be saving up to come over to Austin in 2014 from London for sure!

Joyce Magliolo
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What a thrill to be one of the 695 contributers to preserving this beautiful history. I am encouraging the younger generation who have never seen GWTW or know who the stars are (unbelievable),to educate themselves and see it! It is ageless.Thank you for alerting us of the need for preservation of these wonderful dresses,so beautifully created so many years ago. Sincerely Joyce Magliolo

Michelle Frost
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I am so pleased and proud to have been able to contribute to this project! This has been my favorite movie since I was a little girl, and it’s such a thrill to see the dresses being preserved. I can’t wait to see them restored to their former glory! :)

amy bunting
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I was delighted to be a small donor for this historic project. My mother was reading the book GWTW while pregnant with me and my baby book contains a telegram wishing baby Scarlett and mother well. the name didn’t last long but I went through some teenage years wishing it were my name! And continued to watch the movie everytime it has made a comeback.

Fiona Neale
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My Mother and I have already planned our holiday for 2014 around these dresses going on display and are coming to America from London to see them and to visit Atlanta, Savannah and Charleston for a Gone with the Wind pilgrimage. She will be 86 that year and remembers the book being published and when the film premiered. We are so looking forward to it as we both consider it the greatest movie ever made. It will be such a priviledge to see these dresses!

Garnet Green Lucas
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I also feel quite pleased to be counted as one of the contributers. GWTW happens to be the last movie my grandmother saw in the theater. In the 80′s she saw it again on VHS (borrowed my mom’s copy). I guess if you decided to only see one last movie in a theater that would be the one. That movie and the people in and around it has touched so many people in so many different ways. It’s priceless! Thanks for giving us the chance to help out.

rachel Nichols
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At Topsham Museum Devon UK we hold the nightdress Vivien Leigh wore for filming in Gione with the Wind. It was given to her by David Selsnick and the harry Ransom Centre was helpful in identifying the memo of gift. The stitching is in excellent condition and if it will help the conservation team I am happy to send over any photos of the seams and stitching.

I am the volunteer collections manager at Topsham Museum.

Jen
Reply

Thank you so much for sharing this information, it’s fascinating to read as a fan of Gone With The Wind and Vivien Leigh, and also as an amateur seamstress. You have no idea how saddened I was to only hear of this project AFTER the donation goal had been reached! But you can bet I’ll keep my ears open just in case a little bit more is necessary.

Marjorie F. Smith
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How do the dresses recreated by the sister at Incarnate Word College fit into this?

Lori Chadwick
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My family teases me because I have watched GWTW so many times (84 and counting!), but this movie makes me feel so many things every time I watch it. It has a great deal of meaning to me. I remember my Mom taking my older sisters to see it when I was about 10…it was making a round in the theaters in the early 70′s and I couldn’t care less so I stayed home. A few years later, when I finally saw it for myself for the first time, I fell in love with it. My only regret is that I didn’t experience it for the first time with my Mom that day. I am so honored to have been able to contribute a bit to the conservation effort and look forward to more updates on how the project is coming along. Viva la Vivien!

Erin Malloy
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I am another small contributor and as a Fashion Design major, I would suggest contacting the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC and Philadelphia University (my alma mater) for help and advice in perhaps conserving the material as they have a lot of expertise in this area and I’m sure would be thrilled to help.

Deborah Hall Loudermilk
Reply

Wow, what a gratification to be one of the 695 contributors to help preserve those beautiful gowns; as well as part of “Movie” history. Anyone that knows me will know it is my favorite movie and I never miss a chance to see it each time it is shows. Even though we all know, the movie is not authentic in everything, as a child it captivated me and made me interested in my ancestry. With that, I became a Civil War Re-enactor and am proud of my Southron heritage. With the help of my husband, I became an avid collector of “GWTW” memorabilia with some items displayed in my house.

I had a chance to participate in a trade show in Atlanta in 2000 and since I had to work, my husband was nice enough to go visit the “Tara” Museum located in Jonesboro and take photos for me. If you are ever in the area, please check that out as well. They have a costume gallery, international library, miniature Tara, as well as behind the scene photos. They had on display the white dress with the black detailing around the sleeves that the newly married Mrs. Butler wore and he was able to take photos. Of course, he said it was not actually white as in the movie…I guess the lighting is what made it appear white but it was beautiful.
I had also wanted to stay at “Tarleton Oaks” which was the fictional plantation home of Brent & Steward Tarleton but did not have an opportunity due to work time restraints. It was an actual plantation located in Barnesville, Georgia and is centrally located between Atlanta and Macon that headquartered a Confederate militia group, The Barnesville Blues during the Civil War.
The Bed & Breakfast was owned and operated by Terry Lynn and Fred Crane who was best known for his portrayal of Brent Tarleton, a suitor of Scarlett O’Hara who had the opening lines in the classic movie Gone With the Wind. Guests that there had the opportunity to view rare photography and cut scenes from the movie, as well as photographs from behind the scenes. What made the production so special is that Fred personally narrated it. He gave his first-hand recollections of Gone with the Wind, as well as stories about Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, George Reeves and other cast members he had the opportunity to work with and know. Gone with the Wind collectors could purchase rare GWTW memorabilia from the Tarleton Oaks Gift Shoppe, such as rare autographs and photographs and other rare one-of-a-kind items.
Well I heard that Fred passed away in 2008 and Terry Lynn Crane has since sold to a new owner, so I believe the bed and breakfast has closed, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, if you are in the area, you still might want to check it out!
Just want to say thanks to all the others that helped preserve these for the future generations that will have forgotten about this chapter of our ancestors lives.

Jill Morena
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As the Ransom Center’s Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, I wanted to respond to Marjorie Smith’s question on December 2 concerning the four costume reproductions that the Center holds.

Shortly after the Selznick archive arrived in the 1980s the original costumes from “Gone With The Wind” were determined too fragile to be exhibited repeatedly or for extended periods of time for the purpose of display and travel.

In 1986, Ransom Center Director Decherd Turner contacted Sister Mary Elizabeth Joyce, director of the Fashion Design Department of Incarnate Word College in San Antonio, Texas, about supervising the reproduction of four of the original gowns worn by Vivien Leigh. The project, executed by Carrie Harrell and Jan Hevenor, involved creating reproductions of the green velvet curtain dress, the wedding dress, the burgundy ball gown, and the blue peignoir.

Since the mid-1980s, the Ransom Center has loaned the reproductions to institutions for display. In order to responsibly care for the original dresses, the reproductions will certainly continue to be loaned for exhibition purposes. Even after conservation work is completed on the original gowns, constant display or travel will not be possible if the original gowns are to remain stable and preserved for many generations to come. Nevertheless, the reproductions themselves are nearly 25 years old, and will also need to be closely monitored for signs of stress on the fabric and construction.

While the reproduction project did not involve work directly done on the original gowns, the reproductions are akin to a restoration project rather than a conservation project. Conservation work generally involves minimal intervention in terms of altering the state or appearance of an item and instead focuses on stabilization and prevention of deterioration, while restoration work often involves introducing new, non-original material to the item with the aim of returning the item to its assumed original state. For example, the curtain dress was reproduced to look as it does onscreen in pristine condition, in a deep emerald green velvet that is different than the faded, olive green velvet of the original dress. The discoloration on the original dress will not be, for example, re-dyed or corrected to look as it does onscreen. This would erase the traces of creation or use embedded in the fibers of the dress. It currently remains a mystery as to whether the fading and discoloration was deliberately manufactured by the studio, is the result of overexposure to light, or is there for some other reason. Conservation work will provide us with a fascinating window into the history, use, and creation of the original gowns, as well as the nature of how and why textiles change over time.

Austin Ferguson
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This is, without a doubt, my favorite movie (the same goes for the book, too!). I’m going to the university as a freshman next year, and can’t wait ’til this exhibit opens when I’m in school!

Michael Jennnings
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I ran across this site while foraging on the internet for anything Gone With The Wind. I have always loved this movie and have read and reread the book many times. It lays open by my bedside and I pick it up to read some of my favorite parts, which are many. I love the romance of the era and this book and movie bring all this to the forefront for me. I am so happy that there is being so much done to preserve this movie.

Ivy
Reply

Are there any certified costume and textiles conservators working on this project?

Alicia Dietrich
Reply

Conservation treatments are currently not being conducted on the costumes. The analyses described in the previous article are observation-based and will be used to determine the conservation treatment.

The professional conservator chosen to conserve the costumes will be a member in good standing of The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), the national membership organization of conservation professionals. In addition, the conservator chosen will have worked in an institutional setting as a textile conservator, have extensive experience in performing conservation treatments on textile-based items, a strong knowledge of film costume design, history and practices, and will be up-to-date on current research and methods in the field of textile conservation.

Katie
Reply

With regards to the front partial hoop that looks like it may have been added at a later date, I wonder if the center has any documentation of where else the gown was used? I myself do not know how many versions of the curtain gown were made – I notice the gown the center has still has the sort of ruffle on the sleeve, so perhaps another version that has been altered exists out there since films often made duplicates – but I just wanted to mention that at least one version of the gown was used in another film called Bedlam in 1946, in which the sleeve ruffle was removed, as was the cording. You can see it here:

http://www.recycledmoviecostumes.com/victorianedwardian082.html

Judging from the alterations, I imagine the center has a different version of the gown, but if there is a slim chance that it does have the same version, it could account for some of the alterations and stitching, especially around the sleeves where the gown would have been altered for the 1946 film and then perhaps re-altered back to their original form by Plunkett when he underwent his conservation efforts. Again, I’m doubting it’s the same copy of the dress, but if it is the same, it could account for a lot of the differences in stitching that you’re finding during the conservation process. I’m not sure if it was used in any other films after that point, but it honestly would not surprise me. I am sure the center already knows all this, but wanted to throw that out there as a possibility just in case.

Amber
Reply

With very few exceptions, and once they were returned to Western Costume, Vivien Leigh’s Gone With The Wind dresses were used in other film productions. The Drapery Dress is no exception, having been worn by Anna Lee in the Boris Karloff thriller Bedlam. FYI: Beginning April 30, 2011, and through April 30, 2012, many original Gone With The Wind Costumes (culled from the world famous Shaw-Tumblin Collection) will be on display at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.

Patricia Nettleship
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Mention the name “Gone with the Wind” and everyone goes “aaahhh!”. Me too. I had the good fortune to have round my dinner table lengthy discussions about GWTW by Lyle Wheeler, winner of it’s Best Set Direction Oscar , Jeff Berg (the behind the scenes agent to every single one of the stars, the director and the cameraman on this film. Director King Vidor came to dinner with pithy comments on his knowledge of the filming. The inside story is better than the film…..as they say about ‘truth’ : “We couldn’t make this stuff up and have it be believable.” Today the residence in which Wheeler lived in Santa Monica in his heyday of film making with Selznick has become a historical research institute. see http://www.lasenora.org The Wheeler children have been very active in providing the Institute with materials including family scrapbooks of photos and other ephemera from GWTW including a ‘shooting script’ (it was one of many versions due to sometimes nightly rewrites.) As a small contributor of funds to this restoration project we hope to be of greater assistance to the Ransom as 2014 approaches. What a happy project to be involed in. Everyone loves GWTW!

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