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The Ransom Center seeks to raise $30,000 to restore and preserve five original costumes from Gone With The Wind (1939). Donations to restore the costumes can be made online .
The Ransom Center holds the film collection of David O. Selznick, a well-known and admired producer of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s. Selznick’s production of Gone With The Wind is considered one of the quintessential films of the period, receiving 10 Academy Awards.
Among the more than 5,000 boxes of materials in the Selznick collection are five original costumes from Gone With The Wind: character Scarlett O’Hara’s Green Curtain Dress, Green Velvet Dressing Gown, Burgundy Ball Gown, Blue Velvet Peignoir and Wedding Dress. Most of the costumes, all worn by actress Vivien Leigh, are in too fragile condition to be exhibited.
“An historical garment in a museum collection is often most compelling when it is displayed on a mannequin, and yet each time a fragile costume is removed from storage, handled and placed on a dress form, that garment is at risk,” said Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects at the Ransom Center. “Conservation work and custom supports for storage and display are essential components in ensuring that the Gone With The Wind costumes can be enjoyed for years to come.”
Donations made to the Ransom Center will allow for the restoration of the original dresses and the purchase of protective housing and custom-fitted mannequins to allow for proper exhibition. The Center hopes to display the costumes in 2014 as part of an exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind and to be able to loan the dresses to museums internationally.
“Nothing evokes the human element in film quite like the costume,” said Steve Wilson, Curator of Film at the Ransom Center. “A character’s social and economic class, for example, can be represented through the style and quality of her clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. And not only must the costume support and enhance the actor and director’s interpretation of the character, but it must also allow for the actor’s movement and withstand the rigors of shooting. The appreciation of costume design can deepen our understanding of film as an art form and reflection of our culture.”
Concerning the creation of costumes for Gone With The Wind, costume designer Walter Plunkett had remarked, “I don’t think it was my best work or even the biggest thing I did… But that picture, of course, will go on forever, and that green dress, because it makes a story point, is probably the most famous costume in the history of motion pictures.”
As the Making Movies exhibition demonstrates, a costume can reveal much about a film character. For example, a character’s social and economic class can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing also exposes a character’s unique personality traits and self-image. Steve Wilson, the Ransom Center’s Associate Curator of Film, talks about Robert De Niro’s costume in Taxi Driver, and how it supports and enhances the interpretation of the character Travis Bickle.
In a scene from the 1995 film Heat, Robert De Niro storms into Ashley Judd’s hotel room, grills her for answers, and knocks a line of wire hangers off the rack. According to Ashley Judd, detail-oriented director Michael Mann chose those particular metal hangers for just the right visual and sound effect.
The Ransom Center also carefully selected hangers specifically for the costumes of Robert De Niro, whose film archive resides at the Ransom Center. Last October, the Ransom Center’s preservation lab constructed 100 custom-made hangers for heavy coats and jackets in the De Niro collection.
“Robert De Niro had a lot of large, heavy coats. For one film, for example, he could have five full-length leather jackets. We had to have something that would be very sturdy and also very good for the textile,” says Apryl Voskamp, Preservation Housings Manager.
Before acquiring De Niro’s collection, the Ransom Center had few costumes to house and could afford the space to store the costumes in the ideal environment: lying flat and in the dark. But with thousands of costumes arriving in the De Niro collection, Helen Adair, Associate Curator for Performing Arts, and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, inspected the costumes and deemed some costumes appropriate for hanging storage, including many of the jackets.
“It takes less space to store things hanging,” says conservator Mary Baughman. “Things like the leather jackets are pretty tough as long as they’re out of the light.”
The challenge was to find or make padded hangers appropriate for De Niro’s jackets.
“We didn’t have any hangers here that would work,” Baughman says. “Some of the De Niro costumes are pretty heavy, and the hangers we had here were too flimsy. And we couldn’t find a commercially made hanger that would work. There are a lot of archival quality hangers out there for your wedding dress, but for a big, heavy leather coat, not so much.”
The range of costumes worn by De Niro’s varied film personae created some unique circumstances for the team. For example, a large, heavy canvas coat worn by the swashbuckling, cross-dressing pirate Captain Shakespeare in Stardust (2007) was treated by the wardrobe department to look weathered and beaten by the elements. This distinctive costume “got an even more macho hanger,” according to Baughman.
Other costumes selected to hang include full-length jumpsuits worn by De Niro’s jewel thief in The Score (2001), as well as the jumpsuits worn by his stunt double. The suits bear burn holes from the blowtorch used by De Niro’s character to break open a safe.
The preservation team also decided not to hang certain jackets. For example, De Niro’s characters get shot, burned, or injured in many of his films, and Voskamp and Baughman were worried about hanging bloody jackets, many of them still sticky.
“I learned that fake blood is an industry secret,” Voskamp says. “Studios don’t want to divulge their recipe because they think it’s the best. It would be helpful to know what’s in the fake blood to know if it will damage other items, but that’s very difficult to figure out. So we decided to isolate these costumes and house them lying flat to make sure the fake blood doesn’t migrate onto other materials.”
Baughman is the mastermind behind the design. She searched for just the right hanger, eventually choosing a sturdy long-necked stainless steel hanger to serve as the main frame. The next step was to construct shoulder supports to cover the metal hanger which would prevent the metal from distorting the garment’s original shape.
“We didn’t want to have this sharp edged metal hanger up against the cloth of the garment. It would’ve left a mark in the garment. After a few years, the fibers will break along those creases,” Baughman says.
Baughman designed the shoulder supports out of lignin-free board. For decades, “lig-free” board has been used to create a variety of custom archival containers at the Ransom Center. Each piece of lignin-free board had to be cut, creased, and tied with twill tape to simulate the shape of human shoulders. The final component of the hanger was a padded cloth covering to go over the shoulder support. Each cloth covering has three parts: two cloth sides and a long cloth tube filled with polyester batting.
It took a team of seven—including Voskamp, Baughman, University of Texas work-study student Liz Phan, and four volunteers—one month to complete the project, spending the entire month exclusively making hangers. Each hanger took an hour and a half to construct for a total of 262 hours. For the Ransom Center’s preservation team, it’s worth getting hung up on the details.
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The choices made by a costume designer can reveal much about a film character through costume. A character’s social and economic class, for example, can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing can also expose a character’s unique personality traits and self-image.
Naturally, the costume designer works closely with the actor, director, production designer, cinematographer, and others on the production team. Not only must the costume support and enhance the actor’s and director’s interpretation of the character, but it must also allow the actor’s movement and withstand the rigors of shooting. Furthermore, costume design must be coordinated across all the film’s characters, while color and texture must integrate into the overall design.
Costume designer Walter Plunkett’s rationale for his costume decisions are in keeping with the classical Hollywood tradition and show why he is now regarded as one of the great designers from Hollywood’s golden age.
In this memo to David O. Selznick about the film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), Plunkett shares his philosophy that costumes shouldn’t be a distraction but should blend in with the character and scene: “I feel Tom’s costume would be all right if it were not for the hat. If he didn’t wear that, I feel he would blend nicely with the costume scheme of the sequence, and would be as un-noticeable as are the rest of the costumes. I hope you agree with me that the un-noticeable costumes are correct in this picture.”
In an advance publicity still, published in an unidentified fan magazine, Tom Sawyer is wearing the hat that Plunkett objected to. This portion of the final scene was cut from the film before the original release.
These are just two items from the “Costume Design” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”
For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.