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75 Days. 75 Years: Costume designer created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing

For 75 days, the Harry Ransom Center is raising funds for its 2014 exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. Opening on September 9, 2014, The Making of Gone With The Wind will reveal stories about the making of this quintessential film from Hollywood’s Golden Age and illustrate why it remains influential and controversial 75 years after it was released. Items from film producer David O. Selznick’s archive provide a behind-the-scenes look into the making of the film.  Donations will help support outreach, additional exhibition tours, a published exhibition catalog, and complimentary programming and presentations.

 

Gone With The Wind (1939) costume designer Walter Plunkett was one of the first designers to work on the film. He began his work long before the parts were cast or the screenplay written, so he relied on descriptions of the characters from the novel for cues for the costume designs.

 

Plunkett began with detailed sketches. His wardrobe team then created patterns, made the garments, did fittings and alterations, and made changes as necessary after watching filmed tests.

 

During the production, Plunkett had to contend with producer David O. Selznick, changes in directors, and Technicolor advisors. Plunkett created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing for more than 50 major characters and thousands of extras.

 

In 1939, there was no costume design category at the Academy Awards. Selznick himself said that if there were, Plunkett would have won it for Gone With The Wind. Plunkett would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award ten times. In 1951, he was recognized by the Academy for An American in Paris. He shared the award with Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff.

 

The Making of Gone With The Wind will include over 300 original items from Selznick’s archive housed at the Ransom Center, including photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, and fan mail. The exhibition will also feature gowns worn by Vivien Leigh as the beautiful and ambitious Scarlett O’Hara. The newly conserved costumes will be displayed together for the first time in more than 25 years.

 

Image: Walter Plunkett’s costume design for the character India Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939.

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

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.

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

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.

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

“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.

Fans donate $30,000 to preserve "Gone With The Wind" dresses

Film Curator Steve Wilson and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, with the original curtain dress from 'Gone With The Wind.'
Film Curator Steve Wilson and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, with the original curtain dress from 'Gone With The Wind.'

Thanks to the generous donations of more than 600 supporters from around the world, the Ransom Center is delighted to announce that the fundraising goal to preserve the Gone With The Wind costumes has been reached. From Alaska to Florida, from Australia to Ireland, the response to this project has been enthusiastic and widespread. Although we knew there were legions of devoted Gone With The Wind fans, the overwhelming concern and support for these costumes provides tangible evidence of the power of movies to strike a deep and lasting chord in our collective consciousness. We deeply appreciate the many calls, letters, and emails, which further bolster our commitment to ensuring that the costumes from the David O. Selznick collection will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

As 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.”

To those of you who contributed to the project, thank you for helping to preserve these iconic Hollywood treasures. We look forward to seeing you at our exhibition in 2014 celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind.

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Donations sought to restore iconic costumes from ‘Gone With The Wind’

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.”

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

Costume: "Tom Sawyer" hat proves too much of a distraction

Magazine photograph from 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' 1938, with Tom wearing a hat in a scene that was later cut from the film.
Magazine photograph from 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' 1938, with Tom wearing a hat in a scene that was later cut from the film.
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.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from Walter Plunkett to David O. Selznick regarding costumes for 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' December 17, 1937
Click image to enlarge. Memo from Walter Plunkett to David O. Selznick regarding costumes for 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' December 17, 1937
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.