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Gown of a different feather: Conservators investigate feathers on the burgundy gown from "Gone With The Wind"

By Elana Estrin

The burgundy ball gown Scarlett wears to Ashley’s birthday party in Gone With The Wind is meant to be provocative (“not modest or matronly,” Rhett snarls) yet glamorous. But when the gown arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s, something wasn’t quite right.

“It looked more like a dance-hall girl, a cartoon character, as opposed to how beautiful this dress really was,” says Cara Varnell, an independent art conservator who is conserving the five Gone With The Wind dresses housed at the Ransom Center.

Varnell quickly realized that the discrepancy was due to unoriginal feathers that someone added to the dress at some point between the film’s production and the dress’s arrival at the Ransom Center. Varnell says that the film provides an essential clue verifying that someone did, in fact, add feathers: jewels decorating the feathers on Scarlett’s sleeve are visible in the film, but replacement feathers block these jewels today.

Several clues led Varnell to distinguish the original ostrich feathers from the unoriginal ostrich feathers. The biggest clue was that the original feathers curl at the ends but the replacements do not. Varnell discovered that threads attached to each feather’s shaft created a slight bend, curling the feather. A second clue was color: the original feathers are blue burgundy, whereas the replacement feathers are red burgundy. Texture was a third clue: the original feathers are thicker and fluffier than the replacements. Lastly, the sewing thread affixing the replacement feathers doesn’t match the thread used for the original feathers.

All of these unoriginal feathers raise the question: why were replacement feathers added in the first place? Since the elastic straps had stretched out over time, Varnell posits that someone added feathers because it seemed like the straps were missing more feathers than they actually were. Another possibility is that someone added feathers to cover up original feathers that weren’t “perky” anymore.

Upon examination, Varnell determined that one such feather lost its perk because it broke at the point where it was sewn to the gown. After six hours mending the feather with three layers of Japanese tissue, acrylic archival adhesive, and polyester filament, Varnell will be able to reattach the feather to the gown.

So far, Varnell has removed seven unoriginal feathers because they were damaging the gown. One of these feathers was covering a stitch placed much higher than it should have been, making the bustle almost asymmetrical. Once Varnell removed the feather, it was clear where the stitch should be placed instead to fix the bustle.

As they stabilize the gown, the conservation team is discussing future options, including the fate of the feathers.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

 

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

 

 

 

Conservators find best treatment for wedding veil from "Gone With The Wind" is no treatment

By Elana Estrin

The wedding veil from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ Photo by Pete Smith.
The wedding veil from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ Photo by Pete Smith.

Gone With The Wind is full of lessons about love, life, and loss. Almost 75 years later, Scarlett’s silk wedding veil has one more lesson.

“At the end of our life, it is the end of our life. We are all organic material. When a costume has come to the end of its life, it is no different than we are,” says Cara Varnell, a specialist in Hollywood film costumes and the conservator working on the Ransom Center’s five Gone With The Wind dresses.

Scarlett’s silk wedding veil arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s brittle and lined with permanent creases, indicating that the fibers were damaged and deteriorating. Because of its fragility, the veil is a prime example of an item conservators may decide not to conserve.

Varnell explains that the conservation team could conceivably decide to support the veil with replacement tulle netting. The problem is that they wouldn’t be able to stitch the tulle to the cap because the cap is friable, meaning it will turn to dust if handled too much.

“It becomes this trade-off,” Varnell said. “If we try to conserve it, what will happen? I wouldn’t achieve anything by way of support, and it would require so much handling I might end up with nothing. If we leave it alone, what will happen? We’ll pack it properly, it shouldn’t be shown, and it will be an object to be studied, not one to be displayed.”

Since conservation will probably deteriorate the veil even further, Varnell and the conservation team have decided to keep an eye on the veil and regularly monitor its condition.

“My fundamental philosophy is just because I can do it, doesn’t mean I should do it,” Varnell says.

The veil teaches another lesson: sometimes conservators should not wear gloves.

“You can’t tell the condition of this silk tulle just by looking at it. And if you wear gloves, not only are you causing potential damage, you get no sense of the condition of the fibers. As soon as you touch it without gloves, you realize it’s very crunchy, which means that the fibers are damaged,” Varnell says.

Although the veil is deteriorating, the conservation team can still tell that the cap is “incredibly well made,” Varnell says. The team also found that the veil tulle is diamond shaped, whereas the tulle that makes up the cap is square. All of this evidence suggests that, if not studio-made, the cap may have been an original Southern woman’s cap from the mid-nineteenth century.

“Walter Plunkett spent several weeks traveling the South researching costumes from the period and meeting with women introduced to him by Margaret Mitchell,” says Jill Morena, Ransom Center collection assistant for costumes and personal effects. “Some of the women gave Plunkett swatches from period garments. I wouldn’t be surprised if a woman in the South gave him this cap.”

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

Weights removed from red burgundy dress from "Gone With The Wind" to prevent damage

By Elana Estrin

“Wear that!” spits Rhett Butler, throwing a burgundy ball gown at Scarlett. “Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion.”

When the provocative burgundy gown from Gone With The Wind arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s, lead weights lining the back hem had torn parts of the dress. Cara Varnell, a conservator specializing in Hollywood film costumes who is currently conserving the Ransom Center’s five Gone With The Wind dresses, explains that the weights are an example of inherent vice: the studio costume department included the weights to make the dress hang and move properly, but over time the weights ended up tearing parts of the dress. To prevent further damage, Varnell and the conservation team decided that the weights had to go.

“This girl’s never dancing again, so the dress doesn’t need to train properly,” Varnell said. “But what we do care about is that it’s pulling on the center of the dress. Dress weights are very common, and, while I don’t approach it casually, I often remove the weights in most of the couture dresses I work with because they’re usually pulling on the fabric.”

To remove the weights, the team enlisted the help of three Costume Studies master’s degree students at New York University: Lauren Lappin, Jennifer Moss, and Laura Winslow. Before removing the weights, the students worked with Ransom Center Book Conservator Mary Baughman to create compartments for storing the weights. They used one machine to heat seal the edges of two strips of transparent polyester film, and they used an ultrasonic machine to separate the strips into individual compartments. They then labeled the compartments with each weight’s location on the gown’s hem.

Once the compartments were ready, the students took turns removing the thread from the bottom of the weight pockets. Switching between tweezers and the flat blade of small scissors, they gently lifted the thread from the fabric, removed the thread, then slid the weights out of their pockets and into their Mylar compartments. Once all the weights were in their designated compartments, Baughman and the students went back to the welding machines to seal the top.

After devising compartments, removing the weights, and placing the removed weights in their designated compartments, the conservation team helped the burgundy ball gown lose some weight.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

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

 

Conservation efforts begin on five "Gone With The Wind" costumes

By Elana Estrin

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Last summer, more than 600 Gone With The Wind enthusiasts from all over the world donated  $30,000 to the Ransom Center to preserve five dresses from the film.

When we last reported on this project in November 2010, Nicole Villarreal, a Textiles and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, was working on a preliminary study of the green curtain dress. Seven months later, Villarreal has completed an extensive record of the costume’s every seam, stitch, and thread. Villarreal found that the underbodice and jacket are in overall good condition, but the skirt and waistband need the most attention.

Textile conservator Cara Varnell, a specialist in Hollywood film costumes, will use Villarreal’s report when she works on conserving the curtain dress and the four other Gone With The Wind dresses from the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection.

“We never have the luxury of working on an object to this depth,” Varnell said. “We normally get ‘em in, get ‘em out. This is the juicy fun of it.”

The conservation team has identified several mysteries they are hoping to solve about the curtain dress.

“This is like Bones and CSI. This is our own forensics investigation,” Varnell says. “Two of the mysteries are critical to answer because they’re relevant to the conservation. And there are other mysteries not critical to the conservation which we may not solve, but the speculation is the fun of it.”

One of the two critical mysteries is which threads are original and which are not. Original stitching is considered to be the work done by the studio costume department, realizing costume designer Walter Plunkett’s intent. Stitches made outside of the film’s production are not considered original. In her report, Villarreal noted the different types of stitches and thread used on every inch of the dress. Varnell, who is very familiar with the techniques and aesthetics of Hollywood studio work, will now use this information to determine which stitches are most likely original and which are not so that she knows which stitches she can and cannot remove as she tends to the dress. Varnell says this mystery is critical to solve for the curtain dress’s waistline since excess stitching is putting the waistline under stress.

“With my background in the conservation of Hollywood costumes, I’ve looked at so many costumes from the period. I can tell what’s studio finish and what’s not. There are several rows of machine stitching on the waistline that don’t make sense. There are extensive alterations and it’s not clear when or why they were done,” Varnell says, adding that she will carefully remove the rows which she determines were not original stitching. “We want to maintain the integrity of the dress as it was originally intended and to honor the piece as best as we possibly can.”

The second critical mystery is the discoloration on three of the five dresses: the green curtain dress, the green velvet dressing gown, and the blue peignoir with fox trim. Light can cause discoloration, but since light often leaves fibers brittle and there’s no difference in the fragility of the faded and unfaded fibers, light is not likely to be the sole cause of the discoloration. To solve this mystery, Villarreal plans to analyze the fabric using equipment from the Textiles and Apparel Technology Lab, including a spectrometer and a Fiber Image Analysis System (FIAS) developed by Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin.

“What’s great about the Fiber Image Analysis System is that it’s non-invasive. You can test the fabric without destroying any fibers, which is huge because you usually have to destroy some small amount of fiber with this kind of in-depth analysis,” Varnell said.

A possible explanation for the discoloration, and a mystery in itself, is a label in the curtain dress that reads, “Sprayed with Sudol.” After much investigation, the conservation team determined that Sudol is a phenol disinfectant similar to Lysol, and it may have affected the rate and nature of discoloration on the velvet. But questions still remain: if Sudol caused discoloration, why is only the outside of the dresses discolored and not the inside? Since three of the five dresses are discolored, why is there a Sudol label only in the curtain dress? Why did someone spray the curtain dress with Sudol in the first place and why did he or she feel compelled to label it? One possible explanation is that when the curtain dress went on promotional tours, called “exploitation tours,” to movie theaters, department stores, and special events all over the world, the dress may have been sprayed before entering another country.

Two of the more fun, less conservation-related mysteries are a wire hoop running along the front of the curtain dress’s hem and four rows of twill tape on the dress’s interior connecting the skirt panels together. Neither seems to have been in the dress during filming, so it’s unclear when and where the hoop and twill tape were added.

“If you look at the movie stills, the skirt is bell-shaped. But if you look at the dress now, the twill tape makes it more of an A-line skirt. Also, the front hem of the dress doesn’t have an undulating wave in the movie stills, but it does now with the hoop in it.” Villarreal says.

Since the movie stills indicate that neither the wire hoop nor the twill tape are likely to be original, the conservation team may decide to remove both, though the Ransom Center will keep the wire and twill tape documented and stored at the Ransom Center as part of the dress’s history. Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center, explains that the decision to remove the wire and twill tape relates to the contextualization of the dress and the goals of the conservation effort.

“Since the dresses are part of the Selznick collection, they’re really contextualized at the Ransom Center as part of the film production. Sometimes conversations occur surrounding conservation treatments that deal with retaining elements that may not necessarily be original to the garment, like later repairs and alterations. In this case, our goal is to conserve the dress as it was used during the film’s production and reflect as close as possible Plunkett’s vision of the costume,” Morena says.

In addition to conservation techniques, the team is using the extensive Selznick collection to search for clues about the history of the five dresses and to construct a timeline of what happened to the dresses between the film’s post-production and when they arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

The Immortal Hoax of William Henry Ireland

By Courtney Reed

“I’m happy that this book is stable enough for scholars to use,” said Inkyung Youm, a graduate intern in the Ransom Center’s Conservation Department, when asked about the most satisfying part of conserving a book of fabricated Shakespearian manuscripts.

When Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare first crossed Inkyung’s workbench, time had taken its toll. The book had split apart in several places. The leather that remained on the binding was chemically deteriorated, and the covers were detached from the text block. Thankfully, the paper was in fairly good condition despite some foxing, a term applied to orangish spots, often present in older paper, that are attributed to deteriorating mold spores or microscopic bits of metal.

Samuel Ireland, an engraver and publisher of travelogues, published this printed collection of alleged Shakespeare manuscripts. Later, the manuscripts that inspired the publication were revealed as forgeries made by his son, William Henry Ireland.

In two published exposés that chronicle his voyage down the slippery path of a forger, William Henry recalls the 1792 trip he took with his father, Samuel, to Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. Samuel Ireland, a fervent enthusiast of everything Shakespeare, hoped to discover Shakespearian heirlooms and tracked a promising lead to Clopton House, home of a Mr. Williams. To his father’s horror, Mr. Williams facetiously told Samuel he should have arrived sooner: “Why it isn’t a fortnight since I destroyed several baskets-full of letters and papers, in order to clear a small chamber for some young partridges which I wish to bring up alive: and as to Shakespeare, why there were many bundles with his name wrote upon them.” Missing the joke entirely, Samuel burst out in anger: “Good God, Sir! You do not know what an injury the world has sustained by the loss of them.”

The trip to Stratford-on-Avon and his father’s love of Shakespeare clearly inspired the 17-year-old William Henry Ireland. Two years later, in 1794, young William Henry “procured” from an anonymous gentleman a lease agreement between William Shakespeare and Michael Fraser. He presented this document to his father, who was enormously delighted. The lease was a fake, as were the dozens of other items William Henry “unearthed” during the following months. His father, though, was convinced they were authentic and in 1796 he published Miscellaneous Papers, a compilation of the forged manuscripts.

Among the forged manuscripts that William Henry “discovered” was a lost manuscript of a play titled Vortigern & Rowena. At the same time that he published the forged manuscripts, Samuel Ireland negotiated to have the lost tragedy produced at Drury-Lane. The audience was filled with doubters, including antiquarian Edmond Malone, who questioned the play’s authenticity in An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments. Even the renowned actor John Philip Kemble, playing the role of Vortigern, doubted the play’s authenticity and decided to give the tragic role a comic turn. The premiere was the play’s only performance.

The critics began to accuse Samuel Ireland of making the forgeries. Hoping to “exculpate my father from the odium which was heaped on him [instead],” William Henry published a pamphlet in late 1796, An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, confessing that he forged the manuscripts. Nevertheless, it seems that Samuel Ireland thought his son a dullard and refused to believe that he had the skills to compose and write the forgeries—Samuel went to his death in 1800 still believing in the manuscripts’ veracity.

In the preface to his 1805 book, The Confessions of William Henry Ireland, William Henry wrote that he preferred that his actions be “regarded rather as that of an unthinking and impetuous boy than of a sordid and avaricious fabricator instigated by the mean desire of securing pecuniary emolument.” He describes in detail his forging methods and reiterates that he wanted to please his father with these gifts. He admits that pride in his own forging abilities led him to undertake some of the projects.

William Henry made a business of his scandal until his death in 1835. He cashed in by selling sets of “original” forgeries to collectors. One such copy of the handwritten forgeries, which originally was presented to the Prince Regent (later George IV), was acquired by the Center in the 1980s.

Conservators often study the historical background as well as technical information relating to an artifact to enhance their understanding of the artifact and to guide their treatment methodology. “At the Ransom Center, our approach to conservation treatment is usually quite conservative to safeguard physical information intrinsic to the item. Usually, we stabilize the physical structure and, sometimes, the chemical condition of a book so that patrons can safely handle the item,” says Ransom Center Book Conservator Olivia Primanis.

Originally, Inkyung planned a conservative treatment: to repair the book structure by reattaching the covers to the book with tackets, a technique that reconnects covers to the text block by looping thread through small holes that are pierced in the cover and through the shoulder of a text block. This repair would have left the book close to its original state, but the binding structure proved to be too deteriorated for a minor repair. While Inkyung was working on the book, the sewing threads broke, which required that the book be disassembled. Once apart, Inkyung mended tears in the pages and guarded the single leaves into gatherings with long-fibered Japanese paper and then resewed the book.

“This is a big job,” says Primanis, “especially when the book is large in size. This one measures 44 centimeters by 33.7 centimeters.”

Inkyung made a new cover for the book since the marbled paper covering and much of the original leather that remained were chemically deteriorated. Inkyung made the new cover with a marbled paper that had a pattern similar to the original cover and book cloth, which, today, is considered more durable than most newly made leathers.

Inkyung constructed a housing for the book that accommodates the original cover. Because deteriorated leather can stain adjacent materials, a folder was made for the original cover to protect the new binding.

Evidence of William Henry Ireland’s hoax lives on in the manuscript facsimiles and the printed publication. Because the book is working as a book should, Ransom Center patrons can now safely handle and study the forged Shakespearian manuscripts along with other texts revealing the context of these fabrications. These volumes might also be called on by those interested in background information on the recently published monograph inspired by the life of William Henry Ireland, The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

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.

Cameras on display in the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’  Shown here are cameras ranging in date from 1886 to 1925, including the first Kodak camera and a circular nineteenth-century detective camera that was used while being concealed under a jacket or vest. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Cameras on display in the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Shown here are cameras ranging in date from 1886 to 1925, including the first Kodak camera and a circular nineteenth-century detective camera that was used while being concealed under a jacket or vest. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Currently on display, this portable folding camera obscura, ca. 1750, can be disassembled and stored in the box that serves as its base. The periscope, which comes with separate lenses for distant and near subjects, contains a mirror that reflects the light at a 45-degree angle onto the floor of the base. This projected image may be viewed through a large aperture on the side, and an artist could reach inside through a cloth sleeve to trace the projected image onto a sheet of paper. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Currently on display, this portable folding camera obscura, ca. 1750, can be disassembled and stored in the box that serves as its base. The periscope, which comes with separate lenses for distant and near subjects, contains a mirror that reflects the light at a 45-degree angle onto the floor of the base. This projected image may be viewed through a large aperture on the side, and an artist could reach inside through a cloth sleeve to trace the projected image onto a sheet of paper. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hal Erickson, a University of Utah Health Sciences Center researcher, visited the Ransom Center to apply nondestructive forensic techniques for recovering faded, erased, redacted, obscured or otherwise lost content.  Here, Erickson is photographing a passage that was redacted, and then further obscured with adhered paper bearing replacement text, by Thomas Hammond in a manuscript volume of his ‘Memoirs.’  Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hal Erickson, a University of Utah Health Sciences Center researcher, visited the Ransom Center to apply nondestructive forensic techniques for recovering faded, erased, redacted, obscured or otherwise lost content. Here, Erickson is photographing a passage that was redacted, and then further obscured with adhered paper bearing replacement text, by Thomas Hammond in a manuscript volume of his ‘Memoirs.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

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.

Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage.  Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage. Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

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.

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.

Before and After: A Henry Peach Robinson photograph

By Alicia Dietrich

Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

“Before and After” goes behind the scenes with the the Ransom Center’s conservation department. The most recent installment highlighted work that Head of Photograph Conservation Barbara Brown completed on the Henry Peach Robinson photograph “Bringing Home the May,” taken ca. 1862–1863.

Learn more about how the photograph was repaired and re-mounted.

Some of Robinson’s work is on view in the current exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.